Mercury’s letter calls on town councils to allow social media at meetings

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The Mercury has written to town councils in our area calling on them to allow the use of social media and filming at meetings.

Last month we asked town councils if they allowed the public and press to publish live updates via social media during their meetings. It followed Stamford Town Council’s decision to not allow Mercury reporter John Evely to tweet during a meeting.

The only council to say it did currently allow it was Market Deeping.

Last week Mercury editor Eileen Green wrote to the clerks of the town councils in Stamford, Bourne, Oakham and Uppingham.

Stamford has already responded to say it would not consider changing its stance as it had made a decision on the issue in June.

Mrs Green said: “It is disappointing Stamford Town Council will not even review the situation.

“This is a chance to open up council proceedings to the public and engage with the electorate, but obviously the council does not agree.

“I hope other councils will be more receptive.”

Mrs Green’s initial letter said: “I would first like to take this opportunity to thank you for the work you do on behalf of the community.

“Being involved in local democracy can sometimes be seen as a thankless task, but I would like to place on record our appreciation of the time and effort your councillors and staff make to improve the local community.

“I am sure you will agree that openness and transparency are a key part of local democracy and equally important is the ability for democratic processes to be scrutinised. I am writing to you today to help ensure that these democratic processes are as transparent and as open to scrutiny as possible by ensuring members of the public and press can use social media to post live updates from council meetings. I would also ask you to allow filming of council meetings.

“These actions are supported by comments made by Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has asked councils to open their ‘digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules’.

“Some councils have said Government advice about allowing social media coverage and filming at meetings applies only to ‘principal’ councils such as district and county councils.

“However, when the Mercury contacted Mr Pickles (via Twitter, of course) and asked him if that’s what he wanted, he tweeted back to say: ‘Just open up the lot to cameras. Councils should not wait to be forced to open up their meetings they should get on with it (June 28, 2013)’.

“Smartphones and social media have changed the way the world communicates and we see no reason why members of the public or press should not be able to tweet or film at council meetings.

“Concerns about what is said at meetings being taken out of context are not a justified reason to ban social media and filming. Instead these methods should be embraced as an opportunity to open up the workings of the council and engage with the public.

“I believe worries about reporters misrepresenting council members are groundless – reporters would not be tweeting mid-debate. They would be concentrating on what members are saying and the decisions they are making. Most tweets would be about council decisions and would be made when there is a pause in proceedings between subjects. Reporters will still take notes from debates and discussions.

“Councils have the ability to exclude the press and public when absolutely necessary, such as for discussions which may be commercially sensitive. I am today asking you to allow the press and public to use social media at your meetings and film if they want. In that way your council can rightly state it is as open and transparent as it can possibly be.

“Thank you for your kind consideration of this matter.”

In a written reply to our request, council clerk Patricia Stuart-Mogg said: “I write in reference to your letter of July 19 asking for the Mercury to use social media at town council meetings and even film if you find necessary.

“As you are aware this matter was fully debated by the town council during their June meeting, following a request received on the day by a Mercury reporter.

“The town council recognises the guidance circulated by Eric Pickles.

“Stamford Town Council respects that openness and transparency are a key part of local democracy and apply this to their processes. However, at present it is the town council’s wish not to allow the use of social media to post live updates of council meetings as it believes that this would provide only a snapshot of any debate.

“You will appreciate local government throughout the country are having to be very prudent with budgets and Stamford Town Council is no different. It is the town council’s intention to investigate the provision of live recording mechanism in its Chamber in the future. Until such time as either such a system is installed or statutory regulations change, the Town Council’s Standing Orders will apply.

“I am conscious that you will find this response disappointing but I need to reinforce the town council’s decision and advise that your request for using social media to post live updates of council meetings is declined.”

Stamford Town Council’s decision in June followed guidelines issues by Eric Pickles, the Minister for Communities and Local Government, urging authorities to allow social media and filming at meetings.

Some councils said they were meant only for principle authorities such as county and district councils.

However when the Mercury informed Mr Pickles via Twitter of the view, he tweeted back: “Just open up the lot to cameras. Councils should not wait to be forced to open up their meetings they should get on with it.”

South Kesteven District Council and Lincolnshire and Rutland County Councils do allow social media updates from their meetings.

What do you think? Should press and public be able to use social media in council meetings? Tweet us your thoughts or leave a comment below.