Councillors should embrace technology for the sake of open democracy, or risk going unheard

Parliament has long had its own TV channel, with audio and video from the House of Lords and Commons a given, and apart from the odd incident, uncontroversial.

However, a generation gap is emerging within local government between those more mature active citizens on comfy seats in the council chamber and the empowered upstarts in the public gallery tweeting and live blogging proceedings to online audiences.

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Last month the communities’ secretary Eric Pickles told councils to open up their doors to filming. He advised that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government after residents were in danger of arrest when reporting on meetings.

In 2011 Jacqui Thompson was arrested for using her mobile phone to film a county council meeting in Wales. Police detained her after forcibly removing her from the public gallery.  Thompson’s film of the incident leading to her arrest is now on YouTube. The sound is poor quality. But it’s worth viewing for the exchange between the Chairman and Thompson just before the suspension of the meeting.

It is correct to say that more councillors are reaching out to social media in order to communicate with their constituents, including live reporting of council meetings. However, despite having socially savvy councillors, there is still an established voice in the corridors of power who fear that bloggers, campaigners and the media will misrepresent their views if the words are captured electronically – the fact that audio and video recordings capture what actually happened should in theory allay these fears.

Ultimately, banning citizens from viewing their representatives in action is damaging democracy and pushing local government further behind closed doors. The digital age gives us the chance to make local government relevant to local peoples’ lives again.

Yes, meetings can be a bit boring, but the debates and decisions made are important, and its time ordinary people got a chance to see that. 

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