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Monday, 28 February 2011

Barnet council's refusal to allow citizen journalists could breach ECHR - resident's solicitor to Barnet council

[Click on images on right to enlarge]

Barnet resident Vicki Morris has retained leading human rights and civil liberties law firm Bindmans to challenge Barnet council's refusal to allow citizen journalists to cover tomorrow's (March 1st) budget meeting despite advice from Communities under-secretary Bob Neill sent out last week to all council leaders that blogging, tweeting and filming should be allowed at all public council meetings.

Ms Morris' solicitors' arguments centre around possible breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights, and suggest that a refusal to allow access to citizen journalists at tomorrow's meeting could be open to a court challenge:
4. We have considered this matter carefully and reviewed relevant guidance, legislation and case law. It appears to us that there are no reasonable, lawful grounds for taking such a position. We have advised our client that a decision to refuse blogging, tweeting or filming may be amenable to challenge by way of judicial review for the reasons set out below, amongst others. 
To me this battle goes to the heart of transparency and accountability of local governments in a democratic society.  It also raises important questions about the role of citizen journalists, and a wider point about the role of government in determining who is, and who is not, an approved or accredited journalist.

Where is the line drawn between citizens and journalists?  This is an important philosophical question, since once there is a state-controlled scheme of accreditation for journalists, the state is taking control over all media reporting, deciding who can and who can not report on events.

Bindmans writes in their letter to Barnet:
8. We consider that the Council’s proposed differential treatment  between “respectable [professional] media” and those who the  Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government refers to as “citizen journalists” would amount to discriminatory treatment under Article 14 ECHR. Article 14 prohibits unjustified discrimination in the enjoyment of Convention rights such as Article 10 above “on any ground such as sex, race, [……..] or other status”. 

9. Further, as a matter of public law, the Council is bound to adhere to Government guidance unless there is a legitimate, lawful reason for departing from the guidance.  You will no doubt be aware of the Department of Communities and Local Government guidance of 23 February 2011 directly on this subject. The Secretary of State noted that “Councils should open up their public meetings to local news 'bloggers' and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency.. 

To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should  also open up public meetings to the 'citizen journalist' as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.”

Philosophy of democracies aside, perhaps more pertinent, in interviewing local politicians here in Surrey, I hear that many local papers don't have the resources to send reporters to every public council meeting.  I firmly believe citizen journalists can fill this gap, providing transparency of elected local representatives.

However citizen journalists face their own problem, aside from patchy access to press offices of councils due to accreditation issues already mentioned, in their credibility gap.

Local bloggers rarely - if ever - have the reputation a local newspaper carries.  Casual readers of a blog are right to question the accuracy of information posted, and footage from a council meeting allows the writer to offer a level of proof, helping to bridge the credibility gap.  Without such proof it would be very difficult for most bloggers to break an important story from the council chamber.

Of course, allowing just anyone(!) to record and say anything about proceedings at the council meeting creates its own problems. Those with an axe to grind may deliberately mis-quote or selectively edit footage.

But in allowing filming, photography and live blogging it's important to note the council and councillors are not waiving their existing legal rights.

I also believe the good that will come firmly outweighs the potential for trouble, plus anyone worried about trouble and mischief should take note; not only of the credibility gap already mentioned, but also how social networks function, and the potential for mass plurality when barriers to entry are non-existent should drown any rogue voices.

Firstly, a growing section of the public is already wise to the ways of the internet, taking allegations made on a blog at face value, understanding the difference between trusted established news outlets, and personal opinion.

Secondly, bloggers build trust through relationships, usually using so-called social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  It's very hard for a lone blogger to build a reputation and a relevant audience.  Hard-won trust would be easily lost should a blogger choose to deliberately misreport events in the chamber in order to settle a grudge.

Thirdly, in allowing anyone to cover public meetings, it encourages plurality of reporting, again debunking the worry that malicious reporting will prevail.  Anyone with a grudge can easily be outed by fellow residents filing their own accounts.

@JamesFirth

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