Updated 19th August 2014: Live reporting of council meetings are an opportunity for journalists to bring a wider public closer to politics. Sharing details of democratic discussions, debates and decisions that affect daily lives.
It is also an opportunity for a council and its officials to show openness and transparency in the digital age. To engage the public and shine a light on the workings of the politicians they have voted into positions of power.
But it’s important both sides understand and embrace what is happening and, as much as possible, see it as a positive force.
Here is my strategy for news organisations: Reporters when going to council meetings or similar public events can publish a web story beforehand, linking to and highlighting any high-profile agenda points, and including details of coverage e.g. live-tweeting plus linking directly to meeting agenda or related documents online.
Be prepared, seemingly obvious, but we’ve all forgotten: make sure any equipment is charged, and that you’ll have internet access, be aware of any rulings on where you will be reporting from.
There should be no issue with reporting from public meetings. Following the Openness of Local Government Regulations of 6th August 2014, there should be no impediment to coverage of local council meetings, more detail from Journalism.co.uk:
The UK local governments secretary Eric Pickles has signed a parliamentary order which aims to bring councils “into the 21st century” and put a stop to what he called “active resistance among some councils to greater openness”.
The Openness of Local Government Regulations, which only apply to England, follow several complaints from reporters, community bloggers and others who have been prohibited from using digital technology at meetings in the past.
The new rules apply to all public meetings, including town and parish councils and fire and rescue authorities.
By pre-publishing a story on a meeting, this offers benefits:
a) chance for public to engage earlier, ask questions – may highlight more interest in a lesser agenda item,
b) highlights our coverage/live tweeting, and,
c) saves some time for post-meeting update.
Live tweet before (to promote coverage) and during the event, then during the meeting:
- Only the main points are needed, add some colour, but keep serious in the main.
- Important to add context where possible,names/organisations/subject titles.
- Always highlight and correct a mistake – delete offending tweet if it would cause confusion/legal issue.
- Remember each tweet stands alone, this is helped by using a pre-agreed hashtag, e.g. #pborocc for all Peterborough City Council meetings – make sure this relatively short, unique and doesn’t conflict with anything similar to avoid any confusion.
- The hashtag then enables followers to comment specifically on the meeting and the news team can then collate them efficiently afterwards, eg. to produce a Storify.
You may well not have time to respond/field questions at the time, although were checking mentions to help spot any errors.
Always good practice to respond to followers reasonable questions – even if after the event, even en masse where relevant.
- Publish story before the meeting – highlight Twitter updates, link to any relevant agenda documents.
- Pre-tweet/Facebook coverage – let users know they’ll see more tweets, but highlight regular hashtag across any regularly used social platforms to signify and let users interact/comment and focus them on Twitter coverage.
- Tweet as and when newsworthy – at least any decisions made, tweeted quotes can aid updating story post-meeting.
- Update & tweet story, adding main points initially to expand later, tweet story link with a pertinent question if relevant to encourage debate.
More tips from Cambridgeshire blogger Richard Taylor, in July 2013: Tips for Observing and Reporting on Public Meetings in Local Government, including his experiences with Huntingdonshire District Council:
Politely ignore council officers. Council officers may well try and prevent, deter, or obstruct you observing, recording, or reporting from, a meeting.
Be polite, but don’t accept what they say, and insist on a ruling from the chair. If the chair seeks to address you in person, insist they make their ruling from the chair while the meeting is in session.
People’s positions can change when they have declare and defend them formally and in public.
I used this strategy successfully recently at Huntingdonshire District Council; prior to the meeting the chair was adamant I would not be permitted to film and ordered me to dismantle my camera, but when sitting in the chair at the start of the meeting did allow filming.