Then as now, positive, concrete moves to make public decision-making accessible, transparent and fully accountable to voters was resisted strenuously by those more accustomed to having their own way, rather than having to expose themselves to the glare of public scrutiny.
Now in Britain for the first time, ordinary people will have the right to make video or audio recordings of the proceedings of their local council representatives.
That it has taken until 2014 for this to happen, is just about the only extraordinary thing concerning the new regulations introduced last week by Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles.
“There is now no excuse for any council not to allow these new rights” says Pickles. “Parliament has changed the law, to allow a robust and healthy local democracy”.
No-one will be surprised that the recording ban has been vigorously applied by Ledbury Town Council hitherto.
There have of course been so many occasions when a tape-recording of the ill-informed, egregious and unwise utterances from certain Ledbury Town Councillors would have been in the public interest.
I remember the time I innocently opened my laptop to type notes at the inaugural Neigbourhood Plan working party meeting and was warned darkly by chairman Cllr Bob Barnes that the recording of meetings was strictly forbidden. Uh? As a lowly resident and community volunteer at that stage, I thought this was rather unwelcoming. Now I realise that the swipe was nothing personal, just part of the entrenched culture of covert policy-making and democratic exclusion that has pervaded council business in Ledbury over the years.
No matter, it’s all going to be different in future. It might be safely expected that now the very spoken words of elected town councillors can be played back on Youtube or Soundcloud for all to hear, there will be pause for thought in some quarters. Or can it? The nagging doubt persists that the serial offenders of crashing insensitivity, even rudeness, simply have no idea that what they say is so far from being acceptable to most ordinary people. Time will tell.
Here is the press statement issued by the Dept of Local Government:
“In a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century today (6 August 2014) after Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, signed a Parliamentary order allowing press and public to film and digitally report from all public meetings of local government bodies. This ‘right to report’ updates a law passed by Margaret Thatcher as a backbench MP.
“Following the passage of both primary and secondary legislation, the move opens councils’ digital doors, covering broadcasters, national press, local press, bloggers and hyper-local journalists and the wider public. The new law aims to end active resistance amongst some councils to greater openness. Councils have even called the police to arrest people who tried to report, tweet or film council meetings, or claimed spurious ‘health and safety’ or ‘reputational risks’ to digital reporting.
“This new law builds on Margaret Thatcher’s successful Private Members’ Bill from 1960 which allowed for the written reporting of council meetings by the press. The new rules will apply to all public meetings, including town and parish councils and fire and rescue authorities.
Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, said:
“Half a century ago, Margaret Thatcher championed a new law to allow the press to make written reports of council meetings. We have updated her analogue law for a digital age.
Local democracy needs local journalists and bloggers to report and scrutinise the work of their council, and increasingly, people read their news via digital media. The new ‘right to report’ goes hand in hand with our work to stop unfair state competition from municipal newspapers - together defending the independent free press.
“There is now no excuse for any council not to allow these new rights. Parliament has changed the law, to allow a robust and healthy local democracy. This will change the way people see local government, and allow them to view close up the good work that councillors do.”