“COUNCILS SHOULD SUPPORT FREEDOM OF THE PRESS WITHIN THE LAW AND NOT SEEK TO RESTRICT THOSE WHO WRITE CRITICAL COMMENTS”

The headline above comes from a Department  of Communities and Local Government booklet dated June 2014 which News From Crystal Palace found while trawling the Internet looking for previous examples of council meetings being held behind closed doors.

For those of you who have missed it, there were two meetings held by Lambeth council at Kennington Oval cricket ground on Monday – a cabinet meeting held at 3pm followed by a meeting of the full council at 5.30pm which the Mayor of Lambeth abandoned after about five minutes.

The council meeting resumed behind closed doors with News From Crystal Palace and a BBC film crew present. (Please see stories elsewhere on this website.)

The DCLG booklet “Open and accountable local government” includes the following:

“These rules help any members of the press and public who want to know about, view or report the work of local government bodies. “The ‘press’ is defined in the widest terms – including traditional print media, filming crews, hyper-local journalists and bloggers.

“The new national rules have increased your rights to film, audio-record, take photographs, and use social media such as tweeting and blogging to report the proceedings of all such meetings that are open to the public.”

There then follows various questions and answers including:

Do I need to have advance permission to report the meeting?

Whilst we would encourage people to contact staff in advance if they want to film or record, equally, we would discourage any system which “vetted” journalists or restricted reporting to “approved” journalists. Councils should support freedom of the press within the law, and not seek to restrict those who may write critical comments.

Can I tweet or blog a council or local government body meeting?

Yes, the new rules allow for reporting of meetings via social media of any kind. Therefore bloggers, tweeters, and for example, Facebook, 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 reporting.

What sort of facilities will my council or local government body provide?

Councils or local government bodies are required to provide “reasonable facilities” to facilitate reporting. This should include space to view and hear the meeting, seats, and ideally a desk. Councils and local government bodies should use their common sense to determine the range of reasonable facilities they can actively provide to support the free press in all its forms.

What is disruptive behaviour?

Essentially, this could be any action or activity which disrupts the conduct of meetings. Examples can include:

moving to areas outside the areas designated for the public without the consent of the Chairman;

excessive noise in recording or setting up or re-siting equipment during the debate/discussion;

intrusive lighting and use of flash photography; and

asking for people to repeat statements for the purposes of recording.

You may be excluded from a meeting if you act in a disruptive manner.

Can a council’s executive choose to meet in private?

All meetings of an executive including meetings of its committees or sub-committees must be open to the public, except in limited defined circumstances where the national rules require or allow the meeting to be closed to the public.

The rules require a meeting of an executive to be closed to the public in two specific circumstances:

If the presence of the public is likely to result in the council breaching a legal obligation to third parties about the keeping of confidential information; or

a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct or prevent misbehaviour at a meeting. (Words in bold type by News From Crystal Palace – Ed.)

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