Friday, 11 March 2011

We have to risk the mob's fury to earn the right to govern the mob

Fear of the mob was a constant feature of politics in past times and that mob was not always either informed or edifying. But it mattered because it's wrath could and did challenge the decisions of governments - especially when those decisions seemed unjustified:

Wilkes was expelled from Parliament in February 1769, on the grounds that he was an outlaw when he was returned. He was re-elected by his Middlesex constituents in the same month, only to be expelled and re-elected in March. In April, after his expulsion and another re-election, Parliament declared his opponent, Henry Luttrell, to be the winner. In defiance Wilkes was elected an alderman of London in 1769, using his supporters' group, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, for his campaign. Wilkes eventually succeeded in convincing Parliament to expunge the resolution barring him from sitting.

I don’t agree with much of the deficit-denying, there-must-be-no-cuts-of-any-sort rhetoric that dominates much of the on-line dialogue around local government decisions about budgets during this cycle. However, as I’ve made clear before, I really don’t agree with the officious control of who can or cannot report, take pictures, tweet, blog or generally pass comment on what we get up to as councillors. After all – as I point out frequently to colleagues – if parliament can broadcast all its proceedings, surely a local council can let someone take a few photos?

We could cite example after example of local councils getting all heavy-handed over reporting rights – in Bradford we even threw out the local paper’s photographer! But some of the focus has been on the strange way in which Barnet Council acted. Presumably this was a response to some of the problems experienced at Lewisham and Lambeth – I’m not sure but the whole thing seemed rather over-the-top and largely unnecessary. And the justification seems frankly ridiculous:

“The current advice according to the constitution does not allow filming in the council chamber.  I’ve not had a chance to have discussions about it with any of our group.  Can you imagine how chaotic it would be if the whole public gallery was trying to film it?”

Now, for the benefit of the uninitiated, the “constitution” to which Barnet’s leader refers is that of the Council. This is the rather grandiose title now appended to what used to be standing orders, regulations on financial conduct and advisory matters such as conduct of meetings. Now it seems to me that, even if Barnet Council’s standing orders do restrict the use of cameras, the Council Meeting can if it chooses suspend any or all elements of its standing orders relating to the conduct of meetings. By way of illustration, Bradford Council – at its recent budget meeting – suspended the standing order relating to the length of speeches thereby allowing each party group leader to speak for ten minutes.

Barnet – or any other Council could easily accommodate photography or filming of proceeding should that be the wish of members. Yet these councils choose not to – and in the case of Barnet the aim is to limit coverage:

“The only thing we will do is consider responsible media requests, and they are the only thing we would allow at this stage. If we had a request, I would expect an officer to approach me about it.  I do not think we would consider a request from bloggers. Only respectable media would be considered.”

In the end this is both a minor matter – the debate and decisions of council meetings are on the public record – and a major concern – decisions affecting the public should be made in public and the public should have the broadest possible opportunity to witness those proceedings.  So when one blogger – Kate Belgrave - says this I have to agree:

Lynne Hillan's attempt to keep the public out last Tuesday seemed to good a reason as any to make sure the public got in. I turned up with the equivalent of a small television station in my bag: a camera, two phones, a laptop and a couple of alternate-provider dongles. I wasn't the only one – the long queue outside Hendon town hall lit up in the gloom like a nightclub as people prepared their cameras and phones for action.

We should not be keeping people out – that is a negation of openness and democracy. Too often Councillors seem to take the view that any audience can only be a source of trouble and that is to be avoided! For my part I’ll fight my corner and make the case for what I believe to be the right thing – and if Kate and her mates want to heckle me, that’s fine. I’d rather that than make decisions behind some sterile authoritarian protection constructed from fear of the mob.


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