Journalists’ right to film and tweet from council meetings is set to be enshrined in new guidelines to be issued by the Government.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles has warned that independent journalism is being threatened following a spate of threats to reporters and members of the public who had attempted to record council planning meetings.
He has challenged councils to allow “the sunlight of transparency” into meetings by formally agreeing that planning meetings – often one of the most contentious areas of local government – can be filmed, tweeted and reported on.
New guidance from the Planning Inspectorate will clarify the rights of members of the public and reporters, including bloggers and hyper-local or citizen journalists, to film or tweet from hearings.
Pickles published guidance in June, telling councils to allow filming and social media use, building on the public’s right to attend meetings, first agreed in 1960.
However, since then, a number of incidents have suggested that some local authorities are still ignoring the rules.
Stamford Town Council in Lincolnshire has banned journalists from tweeting in meetings, arguing the tweets may not accurately portray a debate.
In June, blogger Richard Taylor was threatened with arrest and removed by police when he tried to film a council meeting in Huntingdonshire.
In the same month, another blogger, Jacqui Thompson, was arrested and handcuffed when she tried to film a council meeting in Carmarthenshire in Wales. She was held for two hours in a police station.
East London blogger Ted Jeory has reported how Tower Hamlets Council ignored Pickles’ previous guidance, saying filming meetings could lead to “reputational damage to the authority.”
The minister has accused these councils of wanting “to suppress independent reporting”.
Speaking of the new Planning Inspectorate guidance, Pickles said: “Watching television programmes like Grand Designs, viewers have been baffled as cameras are stopped from filming meetings of the planning committee. Councillors shouldn’t be ashamed or be trying to hide the work they do. I am opening up the planning appeals that my department oversees, so the public can see how the planning system works in practice. Councils should match this by opening up their planning meetings and other committees.
“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 whither. Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers.”