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Posted by: John Brace | 19th November 2014

Bureaucrats ask councillors to agree filming/photo/audio recording ban at public meetings of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority

Bureaucrats ask councillors to agree filming/photo/audio recording ban at public meetings of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority

Merseyside Fire and Rescue crew in James Street, Liverpool 2nd September 2014

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service crew in James Street, Liverpool 2nd September 2014

Above is the sort of photo for Merseyside fire stories that I’ll have to use if politicians agree to ban filming at future public meetings of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority

Ed – updated at 12:46 8/12/14 to include link to petition and slight rewording of text.

In case it isn’t obvious, I will declare an interest as author in this article as a person who films public meetings of the Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority and reports on them as part of my job.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority have come up with a draft MFRA Meeting Reporting Protocol and Procedure for politicians to sign off on at some future public meeting (which is presumably the Policy and Resources Committee meeting next week (however as the agenda has since been published and it’s not on it is must be a different meeting)).

What’s interesting is how draconian it is and how whoever wrote it seems to unaware of a some of the existing laws surrounding public meetings.

Currently the link to it on MFRA’s website is broken. Technically it is only in draft form until agreed by politicians. However the trade unions will probably have a few choice words to say to me about it when I discuss this with them!

It’s split into two sections Procedure for attendance and recording of meetings of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority"PROTOCOL ON REPORTING AT MEETINGS" and "Procedure for attendance and recording of meetings of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority".

Some of it is just common sense that I agree with such as trying to start public meetings on time. Some public authorities of course are known for starting their meetings before the scheduled start time or up to an hour after the scheduled start time.

Personally I was always taught that punctuality is just good manners but the public sector sometimes forgets to put its clocks back/forward or has watches that are a few minutes slow or fast. Councillors also seem to have great difficulty in getting to meetings on time. In fact I have known in the past some councillors arrive to meetings so late that the meeting has actually finished before they arrive.

However moving on from the perennial, "Wouldn’t it be nice if meetings actually started on time question?" to more serious points.

Here’s a quote from the draft document linked above:

"Temporary Building Works

Due to current building works which are ongoing until Spring 2015, The Authority are temporarily short of meeting and available waiting space. Please bear with us in accommodating you during this period.”

Now you’d think if that was the case the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority could have its meetings somewhere else in Merseyside. For example a room in one of Merseyside’s fire stations (they still have plenty of these don’t they?). Or is this just too much to ask?

"There will be a designated area in the meeting room for you to observe the meeting and to allow you to film, photograph and/or audio-record it. Wherever possible you will have access to a seat (although this may depend on how much space is available)."

Nice to know seats are optional. I don’t mind standing and filming meetings, but I’m sure others in the press expect an organisation to provide seats (especially to the disabled). Maybe this is the parlous state of the public sector in Merseyside though, they can’t even afford a few chairs any more.

"The Chair of the meeting will be informed if the reporting includes filming, photographing and/or audio-recording. Those attending the meeting who are not Members or officers will be made aware that they have the right to object to being filmed, photographed and/or audio-recorded by you."

Oh people can object all they like. I’ve heard objections before. Here’s one of the current councillor representatives from Wirral Council on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority Cllr Steve Niblock objecting to me filming a meeting back in June 2014.

I don’t mind people objecting, they can object all they like. Just makes meetings a little longer!

"You must not start filming, photographing and/or audio-recording until the Chair opens the meeting."

Usually I don’t anyway. Trouble happens is when does the meeting actually start (which can be before or after the time on the agenda)? Do I just start recording at the time on the agenda when the meeting could actually not start for a further ten minutes? What does “opens the meeting” actually mean? How do I even recognise a Chair?

Does the Chair saying, "We’re waiting for X, Y and Z to turn up so we’re going to wait another 5 minutes” count as the public meeting starting or not?"

Then it gets to the interesting bit:

"The Chair will announce at the beginning of the meeting that the meeting is being filmed, photographed and/or audio-recorded. He or she will then ask attendees whether they agree to be filmed, photographed and/or audio-recorded to allow them to register a personal objection. If anyone has a personal objection then the Chair can temporarily suspend filming, photographing and/or audio-recording to allow attendees to have their say.
Note: this does not apply to Members and officers."

Oh boy. This is going to be fun isn’t it!

You’re going to get councillors and officers object, then be told they can’t make an objection.

There could be between one and a dozen members of the public present. That could be half a dozen "personal objections". During the meeting itself the Chair has no say over suspending filming.

In order to suspend filming, the Chair would have to actually suspend the meeting or exclude the press and public (and if they did the latter how would the objections be heard)?

It goes on:

"If the Chair considers that the filming, photographing and/or audio-recording is disrupting the meeting he/she can instruct you to stop doing so. Therefore, it is worth noting that your equipment should not be noisy or otherwise distracting (e.g. flash and spotlights can be problematic)."

Ahh so this makes Chairs of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority meetings editors right? I’m just glad that my equipment films silently, I don’t carry spotlights with me and I don’t tend to use flash. This makes it even more unclear, earlier on it states the Chair can "temporarily suspend filming, photographing and/or audio-recording" now it states "he/she can instruct you to stop doing so."

There’s a big difference between being instructed to stop filming, photographing and/or audio-recording and temporarily suspending filming.

I’ve seen these "temporarily suspending filming" issues before. By temporary they can mean about two years.

If you refuse to stop filming, photographing and/or audio-recording when requested to do so, the Chair may ask you to leave the meeting.

That’s fascinating, what if I refuse to stop filming and just leave the room? Unless I stop it the equipment carries on recording in my absence…

I could leave the room, then come back. The equipment would still be recording.

"If you refuse to do so then the Chair may adjourn the meeting or make other appropriate arrangements for the meeting to continue without disruption. There are provisions in the Authority’s Constitution that allow this.

When the meeting is officially closed by the Chair you must stop filming, photographing and/or audio-recording."

In other words, we’re back to the old fallback position of Schrödinger’s cat. Public meetings can be filmed (in fact there’s a legal right to do so), but if someone tries to film one and someone objects they will no longer be classed as public meetings. They will be adjourned or some or all of the public will be excluded from the meeting. Or alternatively the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority would ask the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service to call the Merseyside Police who would then presumably turn up to the meeting. If that happens, we’re probably heading for #daftarrest territory…

So to summarise:

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority thinks it can stop filming because despite knowing it was coming in February 2014, the new regulations on filming have taken them by surprise because they didn’t expect anyone would exercise their right to film some of their public meetings.

In total in this calendar year there are 29 public meetings scheduled of Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority.

As the new regulations came into effect on August 6th, only 11 of those can be filmed.

So far 7 public meetings of the Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority have happened since August 6th (plus a number of consultation meetings).

I’ve filmed one of the public consultation meetings and 3 out of 7 of the public meetings (four public meetings in total).

It would have made more sense for Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (who knew 9 months ago the regulations were coming into effect) to make the necessary changes to their constitution (as advised to by the government). Now we’re basically in the Liverpool City Council position.

The Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority met on October 2nd 2014, but changing their constitution wasn’t even on the agenda.

The law has changed, but bureaucrats still cling to an unchanged bit of a constitution and state this gives politicians the right to stop filming of public meetings. Everyone is still clinging to the past and not moving on. It doesn’t work like that now, whether at the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, Wirral Council, Liverpool City Council, the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, Merseytravel or the Merseyside Police and Crime Panel. The last thing anyone should do is try to put politicians in charge of the press. That’s the way of a totalitarian regime.

If that ever happens they’ll censor anything “politically sensitive” from being published or ending up in the public domain. Say for instance like, trying to close fire stations. All they’d need to do is invite one member of the public along to make an objection and that would be it, no filming at the public meeting (or else).

There are a bunch of human rights issues this raises to such as:

a) whether searches by a public body of equipment the press have to do their job before they enter a public meeting is indeed lawful as the press/public have a legal right to be there.

Even the Merseyside Police aren’t allowed to start erasing journalistic material we’ve recorded, so why should Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority be given access to our equipment either before, during or after a public meeting?

b) whether indeed the proposed policy/procedure is actually lawful on Human Rights Act 1998 (freedom of speech grounds)

c) as public bodies have to have some kind of legal power to do stuff like this, as the laws on preventing filming at public meetings of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority have been repealed exactly what legislation they think they can stop filming under and how they can justify it’s adherence to the Human Rights Act 1998 specifically s.6(1) in relation to Article 10 in Schedule 1 which states:

"Freedom of expression

1 Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2 The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."

So I shall request to speak at the public meeting next week, I may even have organised a petition, but until the agenda is published I can only tell you when and where it meets and which councillors are on it:

Thursday 27th November 1.00pm
Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority Policy and Resources Committee
Temporary Meeting Room, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Headquarters, Bridle Road, Bootle

Cllr Leslie T Byrom CBE (Chair, Sefton Council) 01704 574859/ 0783 662 1059
Cllr Peter Brennan (Liverpool City Council) 0151 225 2366
Cllr Roy Gladden (Liverpool City Council) 0151 226 6708
Cllr Ted Grannell (Knowsley Council) 0151 546 2633
Cllr Denise Roberts (Wirral Council) 0151 652 3309
Cllr Jean Stapleton (Wirral Council) 0151 201 5057
Cllr Sharon Sullivan (Liverpool City Council) 0151 225 2366
Cllr Lesley Rennie (Wirral Council) 0151 644 8137/ 0779 545 0497

You can click on each councillors’ name above if you wish to email them with your views on this proposed policy. If you don’t have email their phone numbers and addresses are also included. After all these 8 councillors are supposed to be there to represent your views in the decision making process! Alternatively please leave a comment to let me know what you think.

If you click on any of these buttons below, you’ll be doing me a favour by sharing this article with other people. Thanks:


Responses

  1. May, I state that Filming of Public Meetings is now in Law Correct, therefore if Council Members and Officers Object they would be told ” They Cannot ” There is a Simple way around that when it comes to the Public, When you advertise the Meetings tell them that by Law the Meeting will be Filmed.

    Should any objections be received on the Occasion of the Meeting, it would then be classed as an interruption of the Meeting by the member of the Public and quite Rightly be asked to leave by a Lawfully Appointed Person.

    Should Public Meetings be held contrary to the Law, it would then technically in Law be an ” Unlawful Assembly ” Public Order Act and then that brings other more daunting and draconian measures into play?

    • That’s only if the public body has suitably trained, skilled and qualified legal advisers it can call on during the meeting itself so such advice can be asked for.

      Councillors don’t know the limits to their powers. They have to be told this and when they are told it they don’t like it and try to find ways round it.

      People can only be forced to leave a public meeting if they are being disruptive (for example persistently heckling). Filming is no longer classed as disruptive.

      MFRA are relying on a part of their constitution that should’ve been deleted (just as the part in the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority) before the new laws came into effect on 6th August 2014.

      There is little point allowing people to object if nothing (legally) can be done about it.

      Or are they going to adopt this policy, stop filming at some future meeting therefore leading to a lawsuit?

      Because that is the attitude of some politicians isn’t it? Forget what’s lawful just go ahead and do it anyway (because we’ve been told to) as it won’t be them paying the legal costs, court costs or compensation?

  2. No this is incorrect they all have Liabilities in their own Right, remember what Mr Crabtree said at the end of the Audit and Risk Management Committee, further the Unlawful Assembly Offence has been repealed, however I am sure given any circumstances, there would be a Public Order Act or Breach of the Peace roll to play, in any Disturbance at a Public Meeting.

    It is immaterial what instructions they receive from others (Senior or Junior to them). The person (s) they should listen to is Legal Counsel in matters of Legalities.

    • The surcharging of councillors setting an illegal budget has been repealed.

      I think you’ll find there are insurance policies or indemnification of politicians being sued for matters connected to their official capacity.

      Yes everyone is liable in law, but some are more equal in the eyes of the law than others as justice isn’t totally blind.

      Usually there aren’t police officers at the public meetings I report on (certain Licensing Act 2003 subcommittee meetings of Wirral Council being the exception when they are objecting to a licence being changed or granted).

      Listening to legal counsel is one thing, people actually understanding what it means is another. 😀

      • Insurance and Indemnities only covers so much. Now in regards to Police Officers, again if a Meeting Chair, suspects a Public Order situation will arise, he has a Duty to protect his members and would I am sure call on the Police to be present.

        It is a fact of how far they wish to go, to keep you out of Meetings that you Report on.

        • The building the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority meet in is a joint police/fire building. So the police control room (where they answer the phones) is in fact next door to where they meet.

          That’ll probably mean a police response time of minutes rather than hours. 🙂

    • Further to that, if somebody objects to a Course of Conduct of a Crown Minister (Sec of State) in implementing Regulations, it should have been done, sometime ago and certainly before the Regulations came out.

      • The regulations on filming public meetings apply to local government bodies (local councils, police and crime panel, combined authority, Merseytravel, fire authority etc). They don’t apply to the Sec of State.

        Different rules/laws apply to the filming of Parliament.

        However the regulations on filming local government bodies was consulted on earlier this year. A least one bit in the draft regulations was removed such as the bit giving the press a right to live commentary during the meeting itself.

        All affected bodies had the chance (if they so wished) to respond to the consultation and many did.

        As the regulations went through the House of Commons and House of Lords there were further opportunities to discuss, debate and vote on them.

        In fact implementation was delayed by 28 days from that originally planned because it created a new criminal offence of withholding (if an officer had custody of the documents) papers for meetings if a person made a request.

        Not that there is actual compliance with this new criminal offence, but I’m sure the police have better things to do with their time then have to investigate if I told them about every local government officer that said no to me when I asked for meeting papers or background papers.

  3. Any regulations made by a Secretary of State, invariably has to have Authority, via what is known as a ” Skeleton Act ” or other Transitional
    Arrangements, etc. As you point out there is more than one way to get what
    you want. As it is now Law, Objections to it should have been made at that time. Whilst I appreciate each decision of Local and National Bodies can be Challenged, there is a Time and a place, as my old dad used to say.

    • Well yes the Sec of State made the regulations about filming under new powers granted under the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

  4. G’day Tarras

    I have finally got you sussed.

    My mate “reprahnehpets” is actually you.

    Got ya.

    To get a decent argument you write to yourself

    I just talk to my goldFISH.

    She doesn’t answer me though she is thick but nice to look at.

    Ooroo

    James

    Keep up the great work.

    • Well I can confirm reprahnehpets is not a nom de plume of myself.

    • How do you tell it’s a female goldfish?

      • My Dear Boy

        Look for a protruding vent. The vent (anal opening) of a female councillor err I mean goldfish is rounder than the male’s and tends to protrude from the body slightly as election season… I mean breeding season approaches.

        When viewed from the side, the vent may appear as a raised surface on the female’s abdomen.

        In addition to a protruding vent, the female’s anal fin may appear slightly thicker than the male (councillor).

        Elementary My Dear Reprahnehpets.

        Ooroo

        James

        • I bow to your superior knowledge on the anatomy of goldfish.

  5. Just to keep you in the know, Queens Counsel (Barristers) Normally Keep themselves abreast of at least One or Two Subjects and invariably Deal with a Particular Area of Law and they work out of Chambers.

    Solicitors tend to work on General Subject Area’s of the Law, Dependent on various Qualifications, some can have audience in the High Court and are known as High Court Advocates.

    The UK Supreme Court, Appeal Court, High Court, etc, are the Courts of the Land, however the Supreme Court, prior to it becoming that (UK House Lords) did once go to the Stipendiary Magistrates, in the case of R v Bow Street Metropolitan Magistrates Court, ex Parte Pinochet/Ugarte [1998] 3 WLR 1,456.

    There are a lot more interesting cases to examine besides that one on the internet, but do not mind me

    • I remember before the days of the UK Supreme Court was created when the House of Lords had the function it now has.

      Yes it does pay to specialise. Generally solicitors instruct barristers (although obviously these days barristers can accept instructions directly from clients).


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