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Friday, 25 February 2011

Blogging, tweeting and filming must be allowed at council meetings - communities under-secretary Bob Neill MP

[click images to enlarge]

Excellent news for bloggers, citizen reporters and government transparency campaigners as parliamentary under-secretary Bob Neill MP (department for communities) has written to all council leaders urging them not to block citizen journalists from filming, tweeting or blogging from public council meetings as part of the government's transparency drive:
Council meetings have long been open to interested members of the public and recognised journalists, and with the growth of online film, social media and hyper-local online news they should equally be open to ‘Citizen Journalists’ and filming by mainstream media. Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and YouTube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public.
Mr Neill expressed concern that stories of people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming was potentially "at odds with the fundamentals of democracy", adding that councils are urged to welcome anyone who wants to bring local news stories to a wider audience.

The Information Commissioner's Office was approached by the Department for Communities and Local Government to judge on whether citizen journalism, including filming and blogging from council meetings, could impinge on the Data Protection Act 1998.  Bob Neill, a barrister himself, wrote:
I do not see these obligations [under the Data Protection Act 1998] as preventing access for journalism. Nor are there grounds for any council seeking to obstruct a citizen or other journalist from processing information.
The Information Commissioner's Office guidance is quoted as:
‘In the absence of any other legal barrier to comment, publication,  expression and so on, the Act in and of itself would not prevent such processing of information. 

In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection principles. 

In the context of photographing or filming meetings, whilst genuine concerns about being filmed should not be dismissed, the nature of the activity being filmed – elected representatives acting in the public sphere – should weigh heavily against personal objections’. 
Mr Neill added:
Moreover there are within the Act itself exemptions from the data protection  principles which might apply in the circumstances of the citizen journalist. The first exemption relates to processing of information for journalistic purposes (section 32), the second for the processing of information for domestic purposes (section 36).

In short transparency and openness should be the underlying principle behind everything councils do and in this digital age it is right that we modernise our approach to public access, recognising the contribution to transparency and democratic debate that social media and similar tools can make. 
Battle at Barnet!

Along with the above I got a tip-off that this letter is being circulated amongst the residents of Barnet, who are being urged to bring their laptops, cameras and mobile twittering devices to the council meeting this coming Tuesday, 1st March.  I'll add details once confirmed.


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