Bury Council, in Greater Manchester, last night debated the merits of allowing people to tweet during council meetings. A little late to the debate, maybe, but at least they were having it.
Pete Bainbridge, a reporter at the Manchester Evening News, was at the meeting as part of the title’s commitment to liveblog every full council meetings across its patch.
Reporters have been allowed to tweet, but councillors couldn’t. I imagine this debate has been had all over the country, and judging by Pete’s tweets, it probably followed a similar pattern to other areas – with some for, and some against.
This particular tweet caught my attention though:
Coun Gunther: Anyone interested in what's going on in the council meeting should be in the public gallery.—
Pete Bainbridge (@pbainbridgeMEN) March 28, 2012
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of councillors using Twitter at meetings – and I can understand the argument that they’re there to pay attention during meetings and engage with fellow councillors, not provide a biased running commentary on what is going on – the notion that ‘if people are interested, they should be in the public gallery’ is remarkable.
7pm on a Wednesday might be the best time to hold full council in Bury for the council, but there are a multitude of reasons why members of the public can’t be there – work, for example, or having to look after the family.
Councillors are the first to complain about lack of participation from the public in consultations and local elections, where turnout can often by as low as 30% of the electorate. They need to be the ones making democracy as accessible as possible, as many councils have.
Livestreaming of council meetings is one great example – and the efforts Birmingham City Council goes to to not only livestream, but then archive by theme of discussion in the footage, are just one example of this.
But I find it quite frightening that there are still elected representatives our there who think it’s acceptable to tell the public to fit in with the council’s schedule, rather than embrace tools which take democracy back to a public which does care about the outcomes, even if participating in the process isn’t widespread.
I suspect that councillors will say that Cllr Dorothy Gunther is an exception, rather than the rule. I’m not convinced – after all, councillors across the country backed a move away from a committee-structure – which enabled free debate on all issues before a decision was made – to a cabinet-style system which allows most decisions to be made behind closed doors.
Maybe the tide is turning – after all, in this case, the motion was passed. Let the tweets from Bury councillors commence.