A NEW law, throwing open the digital doors to a hi-tech era of local democracy and press freedom in South Tyneside, came into force today.
A new ‘right to report’ means the press and public will be able to film, tweet and blog at public meetings, brininging local authorities like South Tyneside Council into the 21st-century digital age.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has signed a Parliamentary order, allowing the press and public to film and digitally report from all public meetings of local government bodies.
The changes, which have been welcomed by opposition councillors in South Tyneside, update a law originally championed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when she was a backbench MP.
Coun Jeff Milburn, a Conservative member for Cleadon and East Boldon ward, said: “I think it’s a really good idea.
“The chamber should be open to all and we shouldn’t hide away as if it’s a closed shop. That’s unacceptable.
“Hopefully, it will also increase the interest in the political process and open the chamber up to more people – that’s good for democracy and transparency.
“Sometimes, the tweets can get out of hand but I’d have no problem with being filmed. I don’t see why not.”
The new digital democracy also received the backing of Coun George Elsom, an independent member for Westoe, who believes the public has the right to scrutinise what is happening within the council chamber.
He said: “I’m totally in favour. The public has a right to know what elected politicians have to say – it’s their money which is being spent.
“At the moment, the politicians can do what they like. Ninety per cent of them just sit there and say nothing.
“If those people are being filmed, they may be forced into having an input in the debates.”
Following the passage of both primary and secondary legislation, the new move opens councils’ digital doors, increasing access for broadcasters, national and local press, bloggers and the wider public.
The new law aims to end active resistance among some councils to greater democracy, which has seen some local authorities calling police to arrest those caught tweeting or filming council meetings.
Mrs Thatcher successfully piloted The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 through Parliament, which allowed the written reporting of council meetings by the press.
The new rules will apply to all public meetings, including town and parish councils, plus fire and rescue authorities.
Mr Pickles said: “Half a century ago, Margaret Thatcher championed a new law to allow the press to make written reports of council meetings.
“We have updated her analogue law for a digital age.
“Local democracy needs local journalists and bloggers to report and scrutinise the work of their council and increasingly, people read their news via digital media.
“The new ‘right to report’ goes hand in hand with our work to stop unfair state competition from municipal newspapers – together defending the independent free press.
“There is now no excuse for any council not to allow these new rights.
“Parliament has changed the law, to allow a robust and healthy local democracy.
“This will change the way people see local government and allow them to view close up the good work that councillors do.”
A spokesman for South Tyneside Council said: “We are always looking at ways to get more people involved in local democracy.
“We are aware of the new law and are considering how this could be implemented in South Tyneside.”