A lot of discussion today around Eric Pickles’ demand that councils ‘open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and allow filming of council meetings as standard.
According to the Department of Communities and Local Government, Mr Pickles feels this is essential ‘to ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government.’
The press release from the department states: “Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.”
Much as this positive statement is welcome, I can’t help but think it misses the point somewhat. The problem with ‘scruntinising local government’ is not about who has what access, but the way in which local government operates.
On the point on hyperlocal bloggers – the government’s term, not mine – having meetings ‘opened up to them’ this should never have been an issue in the first place. Most council meetings are public meetings, and there should be nothing to stop ‘bloggers’ attending these meetings in the first place.
The issue, so far as I can tell, has been the differentiation between ‘blogger’ and mainstream media. The example cited in the press release involved Tameside Council accrediting mainstream media outlets to liveblog from meetings. Tameside’s argument was that too many people liveblogging could have disrupted the meeting.
Tameside appears to be the exception rather than the rule in this respect. If you look at Manchester City Council, it enjoys live coverage from the Manchester Evening News’s political team as well as others who wouldn’t fall into the bracket of ‘mainstream media.’ At the other end of the scale, Trafford Council banned all media from tweeting from a council meeting last year. So it’s by no means normal for councils to treat different parts of the media in different ways. Then the examples of those people who are able to cover meetings live already, such as Jason Cobb in Lambeth and Richard Taylor in Cambridge.
Liveblogging from council meetings should be an essential part of a political journalist’s job – but it’s important that we don’t confuse being able to liveblog with believing we’re holding a council to account.
So, even if we now have a situation where hyperlocal bloggers and the mainstream media are treated on an equal footing when it comes to what you can do in the council chamber, we won’t actually be any closer to what Pickles described as scrutiny of local government.
Any local government journalist will tell you that the real stories from councils aren’t generally found in the council chamber. Some stories begin life on a council agenda, but it’s probably always been the case that the best stories come from hanging around in corridors and getting your face known.
That’s particularly been the case since for the last decade since Labour gave councils the power to overhaul the way they work under the Local Government Act 2000. Out went the endless committees which all reported in to the full council for rubber-stamping, and in came often-secretive cabinets dominated by the ruling party.
The cabinet, or executive depending on which name they chose, meets in public – even getting that was a battle n 2000 - but often it’s a nodding through exercise, clearly pre-briefed beforehand. Even then, the cabinet only deals with ‘big’ decisions. An opposition councillor or two may be allowed to take part in discussions, but their vote doesn’t necessarily count.
That doesn’t provide a democratic spectacle for the media – be it a full-time political reporter or a hyperlocal blogger – to scrutinise. At a stroke, the many public meetings which involved in-depth discussion on a particular service area – lesiure and sport committee, schools committee, highways committee and so on – where sensible debate could take place, vanished. Instead, the ruling party nods through only the ‘big’ decisions with token opposition councillors reduced to little more than making political statements to try and get into the newspaper.
Lancashire County Council is the perfect example of this. Cabinet meetings could get through decisions on which tens of millions of pounds were riding, in 30 minutes. According to its current constitution, the cabinet takes decisions deemed as being ‘key decisions.’ Other decisions can be taken just by the relevant ‘cabinet member’. One of the criteria for something being a key decision is that it carries a cost implication of more than £1.2million. In other words, decisions which will cost less than £1.2million can be signed off on a councillor’s desk, then posted on a website along with all the other non-key decisions. In Lancashire’s case, each cabinet member would present a bit of a report on their work area at each meeting, but there’s no guarantee of it.
Much as the old system was very long-winded, it was more open and transparent. Real democratic debate was possible with a view to influencing decisions. That’s not the case now. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great news that we’re being told we can film council meetings, but it won’t make councils more accountable or transparent.
One irony here is that some councils used the lack of coverage in their local newspaper as a defence for their propaganda newspapers. In Lancashire’s case, the decision to increase the publication of Vision so it was a monthly propaganda newspaper came around about the time the county council was under a lot of pressure over its decision to close 32 care homes. It felt it had had a raw deal in the press – and it was a good example of how the new system is far from transparent. The Tory administration reversed the Vision decision.
A one-sided cabinet took the decision to close the care homes, and it then passed through to the full council to rubberstamp. The relevant overview and scrutiny committee had a look at the issue but they remain toothless talking shops. They are public, but can’t make decisions. In short, all the talking is public, but most of the decisions are behind closed doors.
NUJ top bod Jeremy Dear, when speaking to the select committee on council newspapers, said:
Council publications cannot replace independent local journalism, but the fact is that 68% of editors in a Society of Editors survey believe that they now cover council functions less than they used to, so it is a fact that there is less coverage. When I was a working journalist rather than a trade union official I covered subcommittees; I covered planning committees. The vast majority of the stories we got were from council meetings and council coverage. It is just not the case that there are people dedicated to doing that. Despite the best efforts of newspaper companies and journalists, they simply do not have the staff any more to be able to cover it in the way they did. You see the correlation between that decline and the expansion of a whole number of different council publications.
Sadly, it suits the NUJ to blame the Society of Editors statistic solely on a reduction in reporters. But the world Jeremy Dear lived in as a reporters stopped existing at the turn of the century – and to be quite frank, I can’t imagine most stories ever really came from the meetings themselves – and at least part of the blame for reduced coverage can be attributed to the behind-closed-doors system many councils adopted. Often, issues which were there in open discussion required so much digging that it really wasn’t worth the effort. And council newspapers aren’t the solution to that.
Sadly, neither is Mr Pickles’ decision today to make sure all bloggers have access to meetings. It’s the council system which needs changing, not the way we’re allowed to cover it.