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County Council Tories Are Gagging The Press and Public Claims Lib Dem Leader

Published on: 22 Oct, 2013
Updated on: 24 Oct, 2013

The leader of Surrey’s Lib Dem councillors is claiming that Conservative councillors are gagging the press, public and councillors by preventing their use of social media during council meetings without prior permission. 

Cllr Hazel Watson

Cllr Hazel Watson

A motion from Cllr Hazel Watson (Lib Dem, Dorking Hills), leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition at Surrey County Council, called for the use of social media and the filming of meetings to: “be permitted at all times, without written permission, in the public part of meetings provided it does not disturb the business of the meeting and there is sufficient space”.

But Surrey’s Conservative councillors voted to amend the motion. The effect of their amendment is that the chairman of a meeting has to give permission, in advance, for those attending the meeting (including the press, public and councillors) to report what is taking place in the public parts of meetings using Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and other social media or to film meetings.

According to  a Lib Dem spokesperson, at the first test of the new policy, the chairman of Surrey County Council, Cllr David Munro (Con, Farnham South), banned the use of Twitter during the afternoon session of last week’s full council. He has not responded to the Guildford Dragon’s email and phone requests for comment.

During the debate, held at County Hall in the London Borough of Kingston, Hazel Watson quoted from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) paper entitled, ‘Your council’s cabinet – going to its meetings, seeing how it works. A guide for local people’. The document states: “Council meetings are public meetings. Elected representatives and council officers acting in the public sphere should expect to be held to account for their comments and votes in such meetings.

Social-Media-Marketing“The rules require councils to provide reasonable facilities for any member of the public to report on meetings. Councils should thus allow the filming of councillors and officers at meetings that are open to the public…

“As a courtesy, attendees should be informed at the start of the meeting that it is being filmed; we recommend that those wanting to film liaise with council staff before the start of the meeting…

“Similarly under the new rules there can be social media reporting of meetings. Thus bloggers, tweeters, Facebook and YouTube users, and individuals with their own website, should be able to report meetings. You should ask your council for details of the facilities they are providing for citizen journalists.”

Proposing the amendment: Cllr Denise Le Gal (Con, Farnham North) said that the chairman of the county council meetings is best placed to assess whether filming and the use of social media be allowed.

She went on to contradict the DCLG by saying that council meetings were: “formal meetings of the council held in public and not public meetings… as Cllr Watson had suggested.” Cllr Le Gal seemed unaware that the Cllr Watson had been quoting from the DCLG paper.

One councillor raised the issue of how such a restriction could be enforced. For instance, how could someone be prevented from Tweeting a message about a meeting from a mobile phone? A point later conceded by Cllr Le Gal.

Cllr Fiona White (Lib Dem, Guildford West), who had seconded Cllr Watson’s motion said: “What are the Conservatives afraid of?  We are answerable to the residents of Surrey and not the other way round.  We want people to get more involved in politics, especially young people.

“County Hall is in Kingston and is not easily accessible to people who live in Surrey, especially for people who are at work because the meetings are usually held in the daytime.  We should encourage people, councillors or residents, to report on what is going on by whatever means is most convenient for them and our residents.  That is really what transparency is all about.”

“I always try to keep people up to date with what is happening by using my Facebook page under Cllr. Fiona White.  It is always great when people use it to let me know what they are thinking”.

Cllr Keith Taylor

Cllr Keith Taylor

Cllr Keith Taylor (Con, Shere) said, after the debate: “Surrey County Council has clear guidelines on the filming of meetings and the use of social media, which state that members of the public are permitted to record meetings with the prior consent of the chairman.

“This is simply a common courtesy to all people present and participating in the proceedings. To allow recording carte blanche could result in significant disruption in the venue and could also potentially lead to infringements of people’s privacy. I am not aware of any occasions on which a Chairman of a meeting at Surrey County Council turned down a request to film proceedings.”

“I see the use of Twitter as just a particular example of the more general issue of whether mobile devices are being used at council meetings in a discrete way that does not disrupt the proceedings. …I regularly chair meetings [and] I certainly do not attempt to stop anyone from bringing mobile devices to meetings or from using them, as long as they do so in a way that does not disturb or distract others.

‘The only occasions where I can recall speaking from the chair to anyone about their use of mobile devices has been in the, fortunately few, instances where people seem incapable of switching those devices to silent.

“We regularly have members of the public coming to Kingston to address us. They may be justifiably disappointed if councillors and/or officers are conspicuously typing into mobile devices, rather than listening to what they are saying.

“There have been occasional instances when, after a meeting, I have spoken to councillors, of all parties, or officers about such behaviour. However, my doing so has always been accepted in good part and I have certainly never faced any accusations that this has been part of any sort of Conservative plot to prevent the council working in an open or transparent way.”

The whole council meeting, including the agenda item reported, can be viewed via the county council’s webcast service within their website. Click here.

What is your view? Should councils abide by the central government guidelines or is there a danger in allowing unlimited use of social media and filming?

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