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BIG DEBATE: Should Bexley Council allow filming in meetings?

PUBLISHED: 17:30 07 August 2013

Nicholas Dowling with the dictaphone which caused his ejection

Nicholas Dowling with the dictaphone which caused his ejection

Archant

When Bexley resident Nicholas Dowling took a small voice recorder took a small voice recorder into the council's public realm scrutiny committee on June 19, little did he realise the furore he would cause.

Bexley Council deputy leader Cllr Colin CampbellBexley Council deputy leader Cllr Colin Campbell

Days before the row erupted, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, issued a directive saying that the public should be able to film all meetings held in public.

Mr Pickles said: “I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state.

“Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism.

“Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.

“Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests.”

But chairman of Bexley Council’s scrutiny committee meeting, Cllr Cheryl Bacon, told Mr Dowling he could not record the meeting.

He persisted and refused to leave and the police were called.

The stand-off ended with the meeting being held in private, leading some critics to claim that the council is being obstructive.

The council’s deputy leader, Cllr Colin Campbell, appeared on the Sunday Politics BBC1 television show on July 7 to defend Bexley’s position of not allowing Mr Dowling to record the meeting.

Richmondshire District Council, in north Yorkshire, may have set a precedent by agreeing to allow the public to film all council and committee meetings.

Its deputy council leader Cllr Mick Griffiths said: “We live in a modern world and I think that this sort of media is more attractive to young people, and this may help to get them more involved in local politics.”

We spoke to Cllr Campbell, and Mr Dowling.

Nicholas Dowling, Bexley resident, 42

“They’re reluctant for people to film in council chambers so they can steamroller their decisions through.

For me, the guidance of Eric Pickles supersedes Bexley Council.

The council should be showing people who can’t be at meetings what decisions are made and how.

There should never be a problem with filming at meetings unless they’ve got something to hide.

Hardly anyone goes to a lot of these committees, except for the regulars, and as it’s so Tory-dominated it becomes a bit of a talking shop.

All you get is the council’s side of the story, and they want to control the message.

The situation where I got chucked out of the meeting was ridiculous.

Calling the police, who knew their time was being wasted, was pointless and the committee was taken into a separate chamber even though it was just me trying to make a recording.

Effectively, this was a way to shut out the public. I want to know with what right were we being excluded, even though it’s only me who was being ‘disruptive’. I wasn’t even being disruptive.

All I wanted to do was make a voice recording, in accordance with Mr Pickles’s guidelines.

I wasn’t impinging on anyone’s privacy. The decisions they are making are affecting everyone in the borough.

“I get the impression all the councillors care about is political points scoring. I believe in accountability and democracy and I don’t think Bexley Council backs either of those things. It’s a one-party democracy at best.”

Cllr Colin Campbell, Bexley Council deputy leader

“We are committed to openness. Our Council and Committee meetings are held in public. The papers for these meetings are made available in advance and opportunities are offered to ask questions, make deputations and present petitions.

These are challenging times and we have serious business to go through if we are to represent the interests of all our residents. We need to guard against disruption at our meetings. Deliberate and planned attempts to disrupt our business do nothing to help our residents and businesses and simply take up time and taxpayers’ money that could be better spent.

We already allow filming at our meetings, but the rules we have agreed make this at the discretion of the Chairman.

In light of recent guidance from the Department of Communities and Local Government, the leader of the council has asked that a report be considered at the Constitution Review Panel in September 2013 to consider the issues and options for photography, filming and recording to take place in both the current Civic Offices and the refurbished building we are due to move into early next year.

This will allow us an opportunity to formulate proposals to ensure that any arrangements introduced are not disruptive or distracting to the good order and conduct of meetings, that they safeguard and respect the wishes of members of the public who do not wish to be photographed, filmed or recorded, and protect those it might not be appropriate to photograph or record.”

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