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Thursday, 7 April 2011

Citizens can be responsible journalists

An issue I covered in February regarding Communities Under-secretary Bob Neil's advice to all local authorities that tweeting, recording and blogging should be allowed at all public sessions of councils has a noteworthy follow-up from a couple of stories first tweeted about during a council meeting where tweeting was meant to be banned.

Events threatened to come to a head at a meeting of Barnet Council on March 1st, as several citizen journalists and activists attended the council's budget meeting, intent on doing just what the Communities Under-secretary encouraged: filming, tweeting and blogging!

The Twitter coverage included several expressions of discontent at the council's use of a private security firm to control the public during this meeting, with allegations that members of the public were denied access to the public gallery during the session despite space being available, and an astonishing observation that some members of the private security firm appeared to be carrying a CS-style spray.

Coverage was very interesting to watch remotely via Twitter; but how accurate was the tweeting in general, and in particular this bewildering report?

A couple of follow-ups by professional journalists seem to support the view that residents of Barnet had legitimate grievances about the handling of the public during the meeting.

The London Evening Standard and the Barnet & Potters Bar Times both reported this week that the council was to carry out an internal audit into its use of security firm MetPro, which has since gone bust, after further revelations that the firm used secret recording equipment to film protesters.

But what of the allegation that security guards appeared to be carrying CS spray; which would, if true, be a prohibited weapon under S5(1)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968.

One of the tweeters covering the event was @EbenMarks, an activist who took the trouble to find out whether there was any truth in the report.

Today Eben received an email from Superintendent and Deputy Borough Commander of Barnet Borough Police explaining that the police had followed-up on reports that private security guards appeared to be carrying the sprays. Action was taken "very shortly after the budget meeting", which "immediately caused an officer to visit the company and to check the sprays."

It transpired the sprays contained nothing but water, meaning the police were unable to take action on the limited evidence they had:
"A water spray is not in itself illegal in the way that a water pistol is not illegal, it would be the manner and circumstances in which they were used which could create criminal offences"
Interesting in the events surrounding the meeting at Barnet is the exemplary service that citizen bloggers and tweeters performed on this occasion.

I saw no evidence of hysterical reporting or trouble making amongst the tweets and blogs I read.

Furthermore, the police seemed to have acted promptly, taking seriously the reports of potentially illegal weapons being carried.  They also followed-up by informing tweeter @EbenMarks, who was then able to set the record straight via twitter about the contents of the sprays.

It's probably a fair criticism that there was a bit of a delay in reporting the information back to Mr Marks, however I'm focussing on the positives.  I put in a press enquiry to Surrey Police on 22nd February and have yet to receive a response.  The simple fact is that police and public bodies do have a reasonable volume of correspondence to deal with.

Though frustrating for a writer, a delay of 5 weeks is nowhere near as bad as many formal requests for information made under freedom of information legislation. I hope that transparency provided by citizen journalists will help raise awareness of local issues thereby encourage residents to take an interest in local polictics.  That can't be a bad thing!

Update 8/4:  I noted yesterday in a quick phone call with Superintendent Seabridge, Deputy Borough Commander of Barnet Borough Police, that coverage I'd seen on twitter and blogs of the meeting on 1st March had been largely complimentary of his officers, and whether he would like to comment on the role of community bloggers and citizen journalists.  He sent me this:
"I am very aware of the strong blogging community in Barnet. Barnet police have an open approach to engaging with and being responsive to the whole community and we do our best to incorporate this principle with bloggers."
Spt Seabridge added that delays in responding were outside his direct control, and that he'd written to Mr Marks on the same day he'd received information back from the Home Office.


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