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‘Ask before you film’ council protocol rejected as Birmingham bloggers sense victory

‘Ask before you film’ council protocol rejected as Birmingham bloggers sense victory

🕔21.Jan 2014

An attempt by Birmingham city council’s chief legal officer to place restrictions on people filming meetings backfired after it became clear the plan didn’t have political backing from councillors.

David Tatlow drew up a draft protocol that would have required anyone wishing to video council meetings or take photographs to apply for permission beforehand.

But Mr Tatlow was told him to think again after deputy council leader Ian Ward said the proposed protocol would “place too great an obstacle” in the way of bloggers and journalists.

The Council Business Management Committee ordered a period of consultation with the media and other interested parties and will reconsider a revised protocol later in the year.

Cllr Ward said Mr Tatlow had “got it the wrong way around” and that filming of meetings should always be allowed unless there were exceptional reasons why not. Only people who abused the process should be banned from filming, Cllr Ward added.

The protocol appears to contravene a ‘free for all’ policy by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.

According to official guidance from Mr Pickles, local authorities must permit the filming of all meetings that are open to the public.

But a report written by Mr Tatlow argued that the council already uses live internet streaming of the main meetings and therefore “it should not be necessary for the press or members of the public to additionally record or photograph council meetings and therefore any such recording is not permitted”.

And for meetings that are not live-streamed, he proposed that anyone wishing to film, record or take pictures of councillors in action obtain permission in advance.

The proposed protocol states that permission will not “be unreasonably withheld if sufficient time is available to make the necessary arrangements”, although it gives no definition of sufficient time or the arrangements that have to be made.

Mr Tatlow said he had been trying to be helpful by clarifying the position on filming, but admitted he had written the protocol quickly and would think again.

Guidance issued last year by Mr Pickles makes it clear that councils must permit the filming of all public meetings: “The Data Protection Act does not prohibit such overt filming of public meetings. Councils may reasonably ask for the filming to be undertaken in such a way that it is not disruptive or distracting to the good order and conduct of the meeting.

“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.

“The council should consider adopting a policy on the filming of members of the public speaking at a meeting, such as allowing those who actively object to being filmed not to be filmed, without undermining the broader transparency of the meeting.”

The right of residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings will soon be enshrined in law through the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is before the House of Commons.

Mr Pickles said: “An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy. We have given councils more power, but local people need to be able to hold their councils to account.

“We are taking action against town hall Pravdas which are undermining the independent free press, but I want to do more to help the new cadre of hyper-local journalists and bloggers.

“I asked for councils to open their doors, but some have slammed theirs shut, calling in the police to arrest bloggers and clinging to old-fashioned standing orders. Councillors should not be shy about the good work that they do.”

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