Making history in new era of democracy

OPEN HOUSE ... the new right to report introduced by the Governmen allows filming, tweeting and blogging from public meetings.
OPEN HOUSE ... the new right to report introduced by the Governmen allows filming, tweeting and blogging from public meetings.

HISTORY was made in South Shields Town Hall today when cameras were allowed to film a council meeting for the first time.

And the Gazette was on hand to capture the proceedings of a meeting of the authority’s decision-making cabinet.

New laws, which throw open the digital doors to a hi-tech era of local democracy and press freedom in South Tyneside, are now in force.

A new ‘right to report’ means the press and public are able to film, tweet and blog at public meetings, bringing 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.

But the law change had little initial impact in South Tyneside yesterday.

No members of the public showed up to take up their new ‘digital democratic right’ at a gathering in the council chamber - which lasted less than ten minutes.

Just before the start of the meeting, Coun Iain Malcolm, the Labour leader of the borough council, asked our Gazette photographer to move into the public gallery before filming the proceedings.

And our cameras then captured Coun Ed Malcolm, the council’s lead member for resources and innovation, outline the council’s financial position for the last quarter of the year.

A resolution was then passed for Gazette representatives to leave the chamber as a behind-close-doors decision was taken over the future of the council’s grounds maintenance programme. Despite the new ruling, the committee had the power to enforce that ruling because of the commercial confidentiality of the matters being discussed.

But despite the changes to the law, signs remain in the chamber forbidding the use of photographic and recording equipment or the use of mobile phones.

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.

Margaret 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.

Twitter: @shieldsgazpaul