As the new term starts and public life reluctantly grinds back into gear, some local councillors will be subject to new transparency for the first time. Quietly, during the summer, the Government signed off new regulations which will allow the press and the public to film, tweet and blog from council meetings. For anyone who thought that tweeting and Facebooking were simply a flash in the pan it’s about time to acknowledge just how central social media has become to public relations and marketing. Although social media might have started life as a gossip grapevine or a channel for trolls, it has evolved into an incredibly powerful communications tool that has been taken up across almost every sector without exception.
The law legislation in question is the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, which Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles adopted at the beginning of August, saying: “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… 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.”
The government has promoted the move as one that is designed to ensure that the secrecy that often surrounds the work of public bodies is dispelled, giving the press the opportunity to accurately report on proceedings and giving the public the chance to see what is actually taking place – and then to tweet about it. It comes in the wake of various bans or restrictions on this kind of digital reporting – which have now effectively been quashed – and responds to concerns voiced in the press, and by the public, that new guidance on transparency was not being taken seriously.
The actual rights that are set out in the Regulations mean that the press and the public can now resort to ‘modern technology and communication methods such as filming, audio-recording, blogging and tweeting’ to report on council meetings and those of other local government bodies. The Regulations are an extension of a successful Private Members’ Bill introduced by an ambitious backbencher, Margaret Thatcher in 1960, which allowed for the written reporting of council meetings by the press – in their current form the Regulations have simply updated this for the digital age by incorporating reference to blogging and tweeting.
So, we have now entered an era where digital methods of communication are so widely accepted that they are enshrined in law. They have reached local council chambers, until now never considered the sharp edge of modernity. There is no way anyone could have imagined when Twitter first arrived on the scene that the word ‘tweeting’ would make it into a piece of legislation concerning such a serious issue as government transparency. However, now, it is as much a part of reporting serious constitutional issues as it is gossiping about the latest celebrity scandals. And the message to take from that is? If you’re not using social media to communicate then you’re seriously behind the curve.