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Pickles urges councils to open up to scrutiny by bloggers

Once again, I find myself agreeing with something Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, says. I would, of course, support him in opening councils to greater scrutiny by bloggers.

I can’t really put it better than Pickles did in a press release yesterday:

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, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.

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.

Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.

The letter sent today reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.

For example Tameside Council has accredited professional journalists to report from meetings using Twitter. The decision means local bloggers, the public and even councillors are not permitted to tweet because they are not considered members of the press.

Eric Pickles said:

“Fifty years ago, Margaret Thatcher changed the law to make councils open their meetings to the press and public. This principle of openness needs to be updated for the 21st Century. More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists telling us what is happening at their local council.

“Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don’t seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year’s budget this is more important than ever.

“Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.

“We are in the digital age and this analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors.”

The letter also reassured councils that giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements following concerns over personal 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.

What to add? Suffolk CC has someway to go, but an RSS (Really Simple Sydication) news feed on it press release page would help bloggers and mainstream media get information more easily and quickly. I guess, it should take about half-an-hour to set it up. If it takes longer, ask the IT specialists why?

Compare Suffolk’s press release page with the equivalent at London’s City Hall.

In Cambridgeshire there is a good example of what “citizen journalists” can, and are, doing. Richard Taylor’s report of this month’s budget meeting is here.

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