Thursday, 15 March 2012

Courts and councils: please make it easier to get information

I've been putting together some sessions on news reporting and the role of PR people and press offices for journalism students I've been working with. This has included going to watch and report on Southampton City Council meetings and the students have also taken part in a mock press conference with Council press officers.

My visit to the council came not long after attending the Justice Wide Open media law event at City University and it struck me that some of the same information issues raised at the law event could also apply to councils.

How easy is to get court information?
Speakers at Justice Wide Open, including information campaigner Heather Brooke and press association legal correspondent Mike Dodd, criticised the difficulties journalists and members of the public face when trying to find out about and attend court cases. Lists of cases are not always available and some courts appear to revel in the mystique and idiosyncracies of our legal system. Two proposals stood out:

The journalism students I work with sit in on court cases as part of their media law study. But, interestingly, requests for them to be able to meet judges to find out more, in general terms, about how the system works and the role of the media are often rejected.

So how does the council compare?
The good news is that, in line with open government principles, Southampton City Council posts agendas and minutes online and, of course, you can sit in on various meetings on anything from planning decisions to scrutiny committees. It lists forthcoming meetings and contact details for councillors on its web site and there's a democracy officer on hand too. So far, so much better than the information provided by the courts.

But when you actually attend the meeting it can sometime be hard to figure out who is who: some names get mentioned clearly, some don't. Councillors have name plates in front of them but, if you sit in the public gallery of the main council chamber, you can't read them. Senior representatives from the planning department, the police or the fire and rescue service might attend various meetings as appropriate, but their names are not always listed in the agenda and they are not always clearly introduced.

Journalists might make the effort to go and find these details out - but why not just make them available for all members of the public who have a right to know too? And if fewer journalists are attending these meetings, how will we find out what really happened?

The councillors all speak into microphones so in theory it should be easy to hear what they say. But that isn't always the case. Some bits of jargon are thrown around, but they don't get explained unless a councillor remembers to for the benefit of the audience.

What can be done?
  • Why not stream council meetings that are open to the public live on the web - in audio-only format, if not video? It can't be that expensive or difficult given given that there are already microphones in the room.
  • If any issues that arise that are not for public consumption, turn the mikes off at the same time as public gallery is cleared. Just remember to turn them back on again later.
  • Remind councillors that those who are viewing - their constituents - might need some terms explained - and that they would benefit from some clear introductions.
As Nick Davies points out in Flat Earth News, tight budgets mean many journalists just don't get out and about to courts and council meetings these days and there are fewer specialist agencies covering these events. But some of the best stories, leads and info snippets from come from councils and courts. And we have a right to know what's happening.

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