Eric Pickles: Freedom of Speech Under Attack By Local Government
Abuse of state powers as councils threaten bloggers with arrest.
Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, has warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government, following local residents being threatened with arrest for filming and reporting meetings.
Mr Pickles said:
“A small number of councils are blocking filming because they want to suppress independent reporting, just as some councils are clinging to their town hall Pravdas. An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy: without the sunlight of transparency, the flowering of localism will wither. Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers”
In response, Mr Pickles upped the stakes, as he will be publishing new guidance which formally opens up planning appeal hearings to be filmed, tweeted and reported.
He laid down a challenge to councils to open up their planning committees and other meetings in return.
As part of the government’s review of planning practice guidance, new guidance by the Planning Inspectorate will make clear the rights for members of the press and public, including local bloggers and hyperlocal journalists, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings.
Ministers hope this will open up a previously mysterious and rarely seen side of the planning process.
Publicly the Welsh government has rebuffed the suggestion that the same approach should be taken to open up councils in Wales.
Welsh ministers had claimed that the interest in openness is “an unhealthy obsession” and a blogger in Carmarthenshire was arrested and handcuffed by the police for filming a council meeting.
However, it seems Mr Pickles words haven’t been in vain, it was confirmed to Deeside.com that Flintshire county council has received a grant from the Welsh government, enabling the council to procure equipment and training to webcast meetings, over the border Cheshire West & Chester council regularly broadcast meetings – CWaC Webcasts.
Public -i the leading supplier of public sector webcasting systems, also confirmed they had been contacted by “many” Welsh local authorities with a view to supplying dual language webcasting systems.
Clearly the Welsh government is becoming sensitive to suggestions that their stance is allowing local authorities in Wales to become more opaque rather than open and transparent.
In June, Mr Pickles published clear guidance to councils asking them to open up to overt filming and social media, which are not applicable to Welsh councils
However, since June, some councils are still continuing to oppose an independent press:
- Wirral Council has said filming a planning committee would compromise “health and safety”
- Tower Hamlets Council barred a 71 year old resident from filming due the risk of “reputational damage to the authority”
- Keighley Town Council blocked residents filming as it would amount to a “breach of standing orders”
- Bexley Council said audio and visual filming would breach its “agreed protocol”
- Stamford Town Council has placed a ban on journalists tweeting from meetings due to the risk of them “not accurately portraying a debate”
- a blogger in Huntingdonshire was removed by police for filming, and has advised fellow bloggers to “be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest” if they try to film or report council meetings
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