What do disasters, Wirral Council, Wirral Waters, an MOT test, Snowden and America have in common?

What do disasters, Wirral Council, Wirral Waters, an MOT, Snowden and America have in common?

What do disasters, Wirral Council, Wirral Waters, an MOT test, Snowden and America have in common?


Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX (the venue for First-Tier Tribunal case EA/2016/0033)
Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX

I thought it was time I wrote a piece to explain to readers why there haven’t been as many blog posts this month (bear in mind there were only six last month).

After all a lot has been going on. So where do I start?

Firstly, a bit of internal news. As people know I record a lot of video of public meetings and thanks to the slow internet speeds here on the Wirral (there’s not enough competition on high-speed internet yet unfortunately) a lot of strain had been put on the main hard drive of my laptop. Just as a quick bit of commentary, Wirral Council did at one stage have money set aside for high-speed internet access on the Wirral, but decided to spend it on something else apart from a small amount still earmarked for high-speed internet access to the Wirral Waters area.

Although I’m close enough to Wirral Waters to probably benefit, sadly there is a lack of competition on the high-speed internet front meaning prices are still high.

Those who know me, know I used to fix computers and have a disaster recovery plan in place for this scenario and backups. Thankfully IT disaster recovery (yes I realise it is rare for management for have an IT background) runs smoother here than it has in the past at Wirral Council which has had its fair share of IT fiascos.

However to cut a long story short, the internal hard drive can no longer be used (it’s too unreliable and error prone) and has being replaced by an external 1 terabyte hard drive connected via USB.

Yes, it would be nice to have replaced the faulty internal hard drive, but due to the age of the laptop I’m concerned that opening it up to do so could finish the laptop off completely. This means effectively the laptop is no longer portable and stays in my office (which is basically a spare bedroom).

However my routine had been to write blog posts elsewhere in the morning. That’s tricky now as the external hard drive and USB cable need to be somewhere flat. I will eventually replace the laptop. Public meetings held in the morning (such as the Wirral Council Cabinet meetings held on Monday morning’s) also break up this routine.

Last week, my wife’s car went it for its MOT (bear in mind a lot of the public meetings are held at times when public transport is just not possible). As we both use the car for work purposes, I cover the cost of this as a business overhead. Ultimately though when the car is unavailable, considering the criticism I’ve levelled at politicians for getting taxis (at the taxpayer’s expense) to public meetings, I didn’t want to rely on taxis and decided not to go the Licensing, Health and Safety and General Purposes Committee meeting last week (also in part because of my birthday later on in that week). In a slight twist of fate that meeting I missed was about taxis.

The cost of the MOT plus repairs, VAT etc came to about £740. As that’s a one-off expense, I have had to concentrate on commercial work (basically an advertising deal to cover the overhead).

Another factor to consider is that my original plan for this blog had been long-term to run Google Adsense ads on it. At one stage with another website I was running I was earning about £60 a day over the Christmas period from such advertising. These days however the other side of the dot com bubble, advertising rates are much, much lower.

You may have noticed this blog has minimal advertising on it. Those who keep abreast of information law, will know that the Max Schrems legal case (following Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations) led to the EU US Safe Harbour agreement being ruled as legally invalid. Although it was later replaced by the EU US Privacy Shield, it’s only recently that Google have gone through the process necessary that data can be shared with them (such as running their ads on this blog).

There is also a long running story I’ve been writing about for years that for legal reasons, I can’t write about due to legal restrictions until an outstanding matter in it is decided.

Having had a birthday (indeed this blog is now around 6 years old) and a fortnight to think about the future of this blog, feedback (including emails I get) have told me that people find the videos of public meetings useful and the publication of documents revealed during citizen audits.

There are literally boxes of information I have from the 2015-16 audits of various local public bodies (including a lot of unpublished files on councillors’ expenses), but Wirral Council still owes me a number of contracts and other documentation (an employee went on leave which seems to be the usual standard reason why in an organisation of thousands of employees work grinds to a halt when somebody goes on leave).

So, the upshot is that I’ve not vanished off the face of the earth, or got another job and just because there may be a lack of published blog posts doesn’t mean there aren’t blog posts written and yet to be published (for example I wrote one on my birthday last week about Monday evening’s set of three Wirral Council meetings that is awaiting the final touches (photo, headline etc)).

My aim is to concentrate on topical, but in-depth investigative journalism, but bearing in mind there is just myself and Leonora here, to do a good job on such matters can take years of patient reporting.

This would be made easier if certain people in the public sector locally didn’t act in the title of a book a reader kindly sent me a while back titled “Not in the Public Interest”. My job is made considerably more difficult to do and time-consuming by certain people on salaries that look more like phone numbers in politically restricted posts, who seem to get it into their head that I’m on some personal crusade to actually get them to do their job properly.

Therefore they see me as a threat and their raison d’être becomes making life difficult for me.

I’ve seen many public sector managers come and go, it’s not personal, I’m not out to get you or cause chaos.

Yet have a bit of sense and don’t deliberately go out of your way to abuse your power in ways that are unethical.

I never like having to go down the route of getting the judiciary involved, not just because it polarises matters but as it always leads to a can of worms coming out (that there are no restrictions on reporting on in the interests of open justice). As a court reporter I know how the public sector always treats judicial processes like a game, lies through its teeth, lies under oath and has for a long time abused the court and tribunal processes to get what it wants knowing there aren’t going to be consequences for doing so.

My immediate family (before retiring) worked in the criminal justice system and as a child I was told about the systems of justice in this country. I realise it may be old-fashioned to expect the public sector to adhere to the rule of law and even odder to expect councillors and local government officers to explain why they did what they did to the judiciary.

I also realise that coming from a foreign background and being married to a foreign national that my views on openness and transparency are somewhat different to what seems to be accepted as a cultural norm here (yes I was born in this country but sometimes it seems to be completely different to the one I grew up in)!

However, I would be keen to hear your views (in the form of comments) on what level of advertising you’d find acceptable (or whether you think a different way of funding running costs is better) and whether you think long form more in depth journalism is what you want to read (along with data journalism such as the publication of documents) along with any other thoughts you may have.

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What do Snowden, Schrems and the end of Safe Harbour have in common? A tale of international espionage, blogging and data protection

What do Snowden, Schrems and the end of Safe Harbour have in common? A tale of international espionage, blogging and data protection


The Cookie Monster from American TV show Sesame Street
The Cookie Monster from American TV show Sesame Street

The reason for the lack of blog posts on this blog since 9th November 2015 is a bit of a saga involving international espionage, the whistleblower Snowden and a legal case.

Five years ago when this blog was started in October 2010, it was set up as a free blog and hosted by an American company in America that runs WordPress called Automattic Inc. At this point in time in 2010 that was the best place to have it.

UK libel law at the time meant that is was better to have it hosted in a country with better protections for freedom of speech, however since 2010 libel laws have changed here.

Blogs process some personal information (for example if somebody leaves their name and email address to write a comment or for other reasons).

In order to protect the privacy of EU citizens, this data was covered by an international agreement between the EU and the American companies called the Safe Harbour Decision. Back in 2000 the European Commission had agreed that meant that the United State’s principles complied with European Union Law on this matter and the relevant EU directive.

However, then Snowden blew the whistle and the public and media became aware of the activities of the US intelligence community. An Austrian citizen called Maximillian Schrems was concerned about the activities of Facebook and as Facebook’s European headquarters is across the Irish Sea in Ireland complained to the Irish equivalent of what is in the UK called the Information Commissioner’s Office.

In his complaint he stated "in the light of the revelations made in 2013 by Edward Snowden concerning the activities of the United States intelligence services (in particular the National Security Agency (‘the NSA’)), the law and practice of the United States do not offer sufficient protection against surveillance by the public authorities".

The Irish Data Protection Commissioner responded to Schrems by (and I’m summarising here) rejecting his complaint in part because of the Safe Harbour agreement. Schrems asked the Irish court to review whether the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s response to his complaint had been legal. However as the Safe Harbour decision had been made at the European level, it was referred to the European Court of Justice to decide.

The European Court of Justice agreed with Schrems and found the Safe Harbour agreement was invalid. The various European data protection authorities (such as the Information Commissioner’s Office here in the UK) have given organisations affected a grace period before the possibility of enforcement action.

In the UK this grace period runs to the end of January 2016 and so organisations affected can deal with the implications.

Although some of what Schrems complained about (for example no legal right for EU citizens in America to sue the Americans for unlawful disclosure of personal information) is being addressed by a law going through the American political system called the Judicial Redress Act 2015 and there is hope in some quarters that there may be a successor to the Safe Harbour agreement, what will happen next is rather unclear.

As data protection lead, my considered opinion was this. Since the Schrems case rendered the Safe Harbour agreement invalid, the only option I was looking at that didn’t involve having a crystal ball involved switching where this blog is hosted from America to within the European Union.

Last year this blog made more money in advertising than its running costs (unusual for a blog I know) and just under a month ago I had paid £68 to Automatic Inc for an extra 10 gigabytes of space so I could write some "big data" journalism stories as previously there was a 3 gigabyte cap.

As a result of the Schrems decision that £68 has been refunded, but the files used over the 3 gigabyte cap had to be transferred to the new host for the blog.

The comments and posts also had to be transferred over. As there were five years worth of these, for some reason the transfer process didn’t work doing it all as one go, so I had to do it in five files of about a year at a time.

The internal links to the old blog before I registered the johnbrace.com domain name in 2012 I also updated manually.

Then I had to make sure the blog at its new host was compliant with another piece of EU legislation (hence the picture above of the Cookie Monster from the American TV show Sesame Street) that got transposed into UK law that referred to cookies.

So, that’s why there haven’t been any blog posts for a while, because my time has been occupied dealing with compliance issues.

Next on my list of things to do as part of this project will be setting up email addresses for this blog (that is email addresses in the format @johnbrace.com ).

Ultimately it’s considered best practice for a blog to be hosted (that is where it is physically based in the world) as near as possible to most of its users. For example another website I run that caters to a North American audience is hosted in Canada (thankfully unaffected by the Safe Harbour agreement).

As you’d expect from a hyperlocal blog, 91% of the visitors to this blog are from the United Kingdom. It therefore makes sense for it to be hosted in the UK as it will now in theory be quicker for those visiting it from the UK.

So hopefully this gives an explanation as to why I haven’t been writing as much. There is still ~3Gb of data to transfer, email addresses to set up etc. I may take a break in updating this blog over Christmas 2015 and do that in the holidays.

So what’s the Wirral Council angle to all this? It boils down to my attitude towards the "rule of law". As an investigative journalist I often write about the public sector’s non-compliance with legislation.

However there’s an unwritten rule I’ve had in force since 2012 (that although if I did I could use internal resources to do so which seem to match those of say a local council) that I don’t go down the Schrems route and start challenging the decisions of public sector bodies through the courts.

Ultimately I’m one for political solutions rather than legal ones. Writing about a public sector body not complying with the law is one thing, but (don’t try to laugh too hard at this point) I’ve developed a policy of generally not interfering in the internal affairs of the public sector here.

The public sector as a result don’t interfere in my life much* (*to give one example telling Biffa to stop collecting the rubbish each week).

My job is to report on matters. I haven’t been a member of a political party for three years and I believe to do so would damage my independence considering my day job.

My role now, is not political activism or to overthrow governments (yes I did a fair bit of that in my more radical youth peacefully I might point out through the ballot box and political means), but to just do my job.

Ten years ago I went for a long walk from South Fulton, Georgia, across the state line to South Fulton, Tennessee and had a long think about what I wanted to do with my life. Many of the people I’d grown up with on the Wirral (the very people who if they’d stayed could have made it a much better place) had left the Wirral and for various reasons (for example career) lived elsewhere.

I knew at the time Merseyside had problems* (*yes an understatement but this was before the 2008 financial crash) and I made a choice then that altered the course of my life over the last ten years. I decided that morally from an ethical perspective that I should return and do my best to make the world a slightly better place, rather than do what many of the people I’d grown up with do and leave.

Just like Schrems was influenced in his lawsuit by time spent working in America, the time I spent in America probably influenced me in the battles I’ve had over the past few years over the issue of filming public meetings.

Freedom of speech and the diversity of media that exists in the UK are a precious matter. This blog for example allows for political speech and discourse to happen. Without such a pressure valve for society, so people can express their opinion, very bad things would happen.

Part of my formal university education (something I don’t often refer to on this blog and my days in student union politics) was about terrorism, counter-terrorism, political struggles etc and I’m sure no-one following the news will be unaware of the recent sad events that happened in France.

International politics (although I could probably write another few thousand words on the subject) is probably a little beyond the scope of this blog post. Ultimately some local politicians here on Merseyside can at times be parochial in their outlook.

I however have to take a global perspective on matters. Blogging is not just about the person writing the blog, but the community that reads the blog. Although I’m under no obligation to be open and transparent about such matters I feel considering the rumours that start going round when I stop blogging for a bit it was better to set the record straight.

I will end by making a point that’ll probably only make sense to data protection professionals or those with an interest in this area. There are protections written in to the data protection legislation to cover journalism. Ultimately the 8th data protection principle which states "Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the European Economic Area unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data" doesn’t apply to journalism.

However the seventh data protection principle does apply which states "Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data".

There’s nothing I can do really to prevent the intelligence community taking an interest in this blog. In turn the intelligence community would argue and have argued that what they do is lawful. Even if this blog is hosted in the UK, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) could quite happily spy on it without me knowing. Under the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement they could share this signals intelligence with other countries such as the NSA in America. So just be aware of what you put online as privacy died a death a long time ago. It is a trivial matter for the intelligence community to access the deep web (for example email accounts and parts of websites that aren’t available to the public).

There are also plenty of companies that for public relations purposes monitor blogs and social media. Despite the current concerns over the relatively minor costs to the public sector in responding to FOI (Freedom of Information) requests, untold £millions of your money is spent by the UK public sector on public relations. Plenty of parts of the public sector (even locally here on Merseyside) have commercial subscriptions to such services to find out what is being written about them. For every one John Brace there are an estimated four to five people working in public relations.

I exist in a world of embarrassing information that powerful people and organisations would probably prefer me not to publish. So apologies for the lack of responses to comments and emails over the last fortnight.

I will finish my last sentence with a bit of free public relations advice (unlike the public sector who pays £650+VAT for this sort of advice), never cheese off the press.

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Is freedom of the British press over as UK blogging enters the age of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (1984)?

Is freedom of the British press over as UK blogging enters the age of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (1984)?

Is freedom of the British press over as UK blogging enters the age of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (1984)?


Ministry of Truth George Orwell 1984 comment removed
Ministry of Truth George Orwell 1984 comment removed

As I run a blog, I will declare an interest at the start of this article in that I am the operator of this blog. Before anyone accuses me of bias again (I will point out that much of the below is an opinion piece based on a recent court case, legal changes and experience).

One of the things I enjoy about writing (and reading other blogs) is that people do leave comments (although many others read without leaving a comment). The United Kingdom is however not an ideal place to base a high-tech business, which is part of the reason that in an ideal world doing what I do, I wouldn’t be based at all in the UK but somewhere that doesn’t have such a peculiar regulatory environment.

Previously the UK was well-known for its “libel tourism” because of the way the courts here operated when it came to libel. However from past cases certain things can’t be libelled, such as a political party or a local council. Even on matters published abroad, in the past lawyers had preferred to sue in the UK because of the way the court system was here and how easy it was to win their case (and how disastrous financially for the defendant even if they won!).

A lot of the laws that govern the media in this country were based on print publications and arguments about censorship have raged for centuries. A lot of the laws were written before the internet actually happened and were frankly, well overdue for reform. Eventually reform came.

For an example of what used to happen, I direct you to the case of what happened involving Carmarthenshire County Council. Details of the judgement in Thompson v James & Anor ([2013] EWHC 515 (QB) can be read by following that link.

Please note this next bit is in reference to Wales (a country within the UK that borders the Wirral but has a different set of laws and legal system (as well as political system) to here in England).

A local blogger there, Mrs Thompson sued the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council Mark James, alleging that he had libelled her. This was in reference to a letter written from Mark James that referred to Mrs Thompson that was published on another blog (that is not the blog of Mrs. Thompson) that writes under the nom de plume madaxeman.

When sued, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council used public funds to pay his legal costs (Carmarthenshire County Council had provided him with an indemnity for his legal costs) and his legal team also counterclaimed against Mrs Thompson for references made about Mr. James on her blog which he took exception to.

The court dismissed Mrs Thompson’s libel claim, but upheld Mr James’ counterclaim.

Although the audit bodies in Wales in relation to Carmarthenshire County Council have questioned the issue of whether using public funds for his employer to pay the Chief Executive’s legal costs in a libel lawsuit is actually lawful, Mark James is now vigorously pursuing enforcement of the court order he was granted against Mrs Thompson through a Land Registry charge on her property in respect of damages awarded to him and the defendant’s legal costs (paid for by the taxpayer).

Partly to prevent the courts getting completely clogged up with libel cases (because let’s face it if everyone who had ever had anything written about them untrue online actually filed a lawsuit with the court that would happen), whereas in the past somebody could sue not only the author of a comment, but the publisher and the editor as well, the law was changed. The UK ended up with a new libel law (Defamation Act 2013), which completely reformed the old libel laws, introduced defences of truth, honest opinion and publication on a matter of public interest and also new regulations were introduced that came into force on 2nd December 2013.

The new libel law also introduced a test that had to met. Any statement that was claimed to be defamatory had to have “caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. The new regulations are referred to as the Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013 and cover comments left on blogs.

This blog (and comments left on it) fall under the new regulations as I’m the operator of the blog and am based in the UK. In theory if I wasn’t based in the UK but the people leaving the comments were, their comments would probably fall under the new regulations too.

In relation to user generated content (such as comments) on blogs, it means that now the operator of the blog (such as myself) is not liable if the operator of the blog follows the rather strict procedure laid down in the regulations when a complaint is made.

The regulations can be read online, but basically as an operator of a blog if a complaint (that falls within the regulations or even a defective notice) is made about a comment on my blog, I have to within 48 hours (assuming the commenter complained about actually has provided an email address) get in touch with the poster of the comment and they then have 5 days to respond. I also at this stage contact the complainant too.

If no response is received from the person who left the comment within 5 days, the comment is removed, otherwise I’m in breach of the regulations. The person who left the comment has five days to respond and the regulations give them a variety of options which partially determine what happens next. For example they can withdraw their comment in which case it is removed at that point. There are however other options also available to them.

Other larger technology businesses aren’t entirely happy with the current regulatory framework under which they have to operate here in the UK and have published transparency reports as to complaints received and outcomes. I have decided it is high time that I did this too, especially considering the views of the media on censorship.

Out of many thousands of comments currently on the blog since the new regulations came into effect on the 2nd December 2013 there have been complaints so far about two. Detail is provided below.

However, I’d like some feedback from you the reader as to the level of detail provided below and how open and transparent I am being. Are there things you think I should include in future reports, that I am not including currently?

Obviously in the case of complaint #1 I’m not allowed to republish the original comment as that has concluded and the author of the comment has withdrawn it. However there seems to be a general pattern emerging as to the type of stories I get requests for comments to be removed on, doesn’t there?

STATUS: Completed (comment removed 4th July 2014 see here)

Complaint number: Complaint #1

Comment author: John Hardaker

Complainant: Surjit Tour of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral (Wirral Council)

Article comment attached to: Graham Burgess invites Wirral Council councillors to 5 days of the Open Golf Championship

Outcome: Comment author (Mr. Hardaker) decided to withdraw comment and text of comment was edited out with details inserted explaining why.

Note: see also partial transcript of BBC Radio Merseyside broadcast at Councillor Walter Smith “I must say I enjoyed lavish hospitality” which discussed this.

STATUS: Completed (comment removed 13th October 2014)

Complaint number: Complaint #2

Comment author: James Griffiths

Complainant: He/she have chosen to remain anonymous

Article comment attached to: Graham Burgess (Chief Executive) announces he will retire from Wirral Council on 31st December 2014

Outcome: Comment author (Mr. Griffiths) sent email wishing to withdraw comment.



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Blogger calls for Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to consult public and press on local Council filming law

Blogger calls for Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to consult public and press on local Council filming law

Blogger calls for Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to consult public and press on local Council filming law


134 Boundary Road,
CH43 7PH

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP
Department for Communities and Local Government,
Eland House,
Bressenden Place,

23rd December 2013

Dear Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP,

As it is standard protocol to write to one’s own MP if one wants a reply from a Minister, I am also emailing a copy of this letter to my MP (the Rt Hon Frank Field MP). I am also publishing it on my blog and would be happy to publish any replies I receive to this letter.

In June 2013 your department published a press release titled Lights, camera, democracy in action that referred to problems I had earlier this year filming a meeting of Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee where the reason of “health and safety” was given. Your press release also referred to the Health and Safety Executive’s Myth Busters Challenge Panel’s view that the Council was “clearly hiding behind ‘health and safety’ as a convenient excuse rather than giving the real reasons for its concerns about full openness and transparency.”

In October you issued a further press release stating that a new law will give the press and public new rights to film and report council meetings (making specific reference to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill).

Since then a new clause was added to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill called “Access to local government meetings and documents“.

Once the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes law, this section will come into force two months later. However this section does not immediately (as was implied in your October press release) “confer new rights to film and report council meetings” as the only power it grants is to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (currently yourself) to come up with further secondary legislation on this issue.

I quote from what was said on the 21st November 2013 when this section was discussed at the Public Bill Committee stage by Brandon Lewis MP (the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government),

“It is fair to say that people should not be able to disrupt meetings. At the same time, however, we must get the balance right, as the regulations will, and we shall talk to the LGA about that. We must make sure that an authority does not use disruption as an excuse to stop people filming a meeting in a non-disruptive sense”, later he also said,

“That is why we will liaise with partners to make sure that the regulations are correct. We want to make sure that meetings are not disrupted, but, equally, that disruption cannot be used as an excuse to block fair and proper transparency. It is the inconsistent and unjustifiable excuses that councils occasionally use to refuse public access that we want the clause to address. Our intention is to make regulations that require local government bodies, including their committees, sub-committees and joint committees, to allow people to film, photograph, tweet and blog at their public meetings.”

In reference to the future regulations he said,”They may also specify that government bodies may reasonably ask for the filming or photographing to be done in such a way that they are not disruptive to the good order and conduct of the meeting.” and also “the Government intend to work with the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils to cover the detail of the regulations.”

I am concerned that as the government has only stated they will consult with the Local Government Association and the National Association of Local Councils on the detail of the regulations, that these two bodies will have the opportunity to comment on and suggest amendments to the regulations, when there is no commitment from the government that the people these regulations will affect (such as myself) who are currently filming local government meetings are to be consulted when the regulations are in draft form.

There are those who currently film local government meetings, bloggers who use clips of local government meetings in what they write, other members of the press, the public and other bodies (such as the National Union of Journalists) that may wish to comment on the detail of any draft regulations. Unlike primary legislation when members of the public can make submissions about proposed laws at the Public Bill Committee stage, I am not aware of any similar stage to secondary legislation (also referred to as regulations).

Three aspects worry me as to what could be in the regulations (especially as you have only committed to consult bodies representing local government views). I would appreciate the courtesy of a detailed response to these concerns. These concerning sections are in s.40 of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

“(2)Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular make provision—

(c)about the steps to be taken by persons before carrying on such activities;”

I presume this is about informing the body being filming before filming. However if filming is a “right”, why should someone have to tell a body before exercising that right?

My experience of having the courtesy to tell my local Council before filming was that every time I did so they made a concerted effort to prevent me filming. Requiring those filming to tell the body in advance could also give the impression that the body has a non-existent legal power to prevent being filmed. I am against any regulations about there being any prior steps to be followed in advance of filming.

“(2)Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular make provision—

(d) about the circumstances in which persons may not carry on such activities, including for enabling a person specified in the regulations to prevent them from doing so in the circumstances specified in the regulations.”

Apart from preventing filming during a part of the meeting where the press and public have been previously excluded I cannot think of any other circumstances in which this would be necessary or desirable (if the aim of these regulations is greater openness and transparency)? If regulations give local Councils any discretionary power to prevent filming (that they currently don’t have) when the meeting is open to the public my concern would be that that would be seen as a regulation that was incompatible with the Article 10 rights to freedom of expression of those wanting to film.

“(3)The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision—

(d) for the creation of offences in respect of any rights or requirements conferred or imposed by the regulations.”

It is unclear about which rights or requirements this is would cover. Clearly if your intention is to extend the provisions of the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 then the offences would be if people block or prevent people from exercising their rights under the regulations.

I would like a reassurance that the creation of offences does not include offences covering people exercising their right to film public bodies. Clearly if the regulations include a discretionary power (see 2(d) above) that the body can exercise to prevent filming, this could create an impasse where the body asks them to stop but they believe they have a right to film and refuse to do so.

Bearing in mind all the above, I would either like reassurance (individually on the above points) that my fears about what will be in the regulations and possible new powers granted to public bodies are either unfounded, or for the government to agree to a wider, public consultation on the principles behind the proposed regulations so that before proposing the regulations that you (and your officials) receive a balance of views on this matter rather than just the viewpoints of two bodies that solely represent local government interests on the draft regulations.

It is important that the press can easily hold local democracy in this country to account. I would not want to see either regulations that either make holding public bodies to account by the press unduly burdensome on those attempting to do so, or for public bodies to be granted new powers preventing their public meetings being recorded and the public knowing what they’re doing with their taxes.

I look forward to reading your response to this letter with interest (as I’m sure will my readers).

Yours sincerely,

John Brace

First response received 23rd December via email at 13:48.

to: john.brace@gmail.com
date: 23 December 2013 13:48
subject: Thank you for your email to the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP

Thank you for your email to the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Our aim is to consider the issues you raise and to respond within 15 working days.

If we feel that the issues raised do not fall within the Department’s responsibilities, we will try to transfer your email to the relevant government department and ask that they reply to you directly.

DCLG Contact Us Team.


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Government publishes privacy (8), freedom of expression and assembly (10&11) human rights arguments on filming public meetings law

Government publishes privacy (8), freedom of expression and assembly (10&11) human rights arguments on filming public meetings law

Government publishes privacy (8), freedom of expression and assembly (10&11) human rights arguments on filming public meetings law


I thought it was about time to give a brief update on the filming issue and how the Local Audit and Accountability Bill is progressing through the Houses of Parliament.

On Tuesday it finished its last stages in the House of Commons (third reading and report stage) and is expected to become law around February 2014. Sadly when it becomes law in February 2014 it doesn’t settle the filming issue as section 40 (entitled access to local government meetings and documents) in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill around filming which you can read for yourself on Parliament’s website merely grants the power to the Minister to make further secondary legislation in this area.

Also in its commencement section (49(2)) which you can also also read in the same document on Parliament’s website the section on filming (as well as the more controversial section on local authority publicity) won’t come into effect until two months after the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes law (which if it does become law in February 2014 means it’ll be April 2014 at the earliest before there is secondary legislation on the matter).

As nobody really knows what the wording of the secondary legislation will be yet and section forty is open to a number of interpretations there have been some concerns expressed about what form it will take. I think it’s already been mentioned that the Government want to consult with the Local Government Association on this first.

Published this morning were the explanatory notes on the Commons amendments to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill which include at page 13 a statement on “compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights”.

I will quote from this section here (the quotes are in numbered bold paragraphs with my commentary below them), hopefully it allays some fears people had over what the secondary legislation is about and repeats the article 10 (freedom of expression) arguments I’ve been making to Wirral Council about filming for some time!

60. The amendments to the Bill which would allow residents attending meetings of the full council, its committees and sub-committees to act as citizen journalists potentially engage some rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (“the ECHR”).

This is just a statement of fact, written in the ever careful language of lawyers, in my opinion they don’t “potentially engage”, they do engage.

61. The provisions would enable the Secretary of State to make regulations which are either free-standing or amend the relevant provisions in Part 5A of and Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972, the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and that mirror the following elements of the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (“the 2012 Regulations”):

  • The use of websites for the publication of information such as agendas, minutes and connected reports;
  • The ability of the public to attend meetings to act as ‘citizen journalists’ (facilitating the reporting of meetings by individuals on social media); and
  • Recording the decisions taken by officers.

Basically parts of the laws mentioned could do with being repealed to make the situation on filming clearer for both local Councils and those doing the filming. Otherwise there’ll be (once the secondary legislation is passed) about six different bits of law stating slightly different things about the filming issue which would be a recipe for confusion and misunderstandings (especially as each bit of law can be interpreted in different ways). Two of the acts were written before the Human Rights Act 1998 c.42 came into effect. Had they been drafted after 1998 the clauses about filming would have had to be drafted in such a way to take into account article 10 rights to freedom of expression.

The first bullet point I think refers to the media and bloggers publishing information such as agendas, minutes and reports on their blogs rather than linking to the official version on the website of the organisation they’re reporting on. This is already covered in respect of Cabinet meetings in the 2012 regulations, which also grants qualified privilege to publishers in respect of publication of these documents.

The second bullet point is about widening the definition of media to include those writing and publishing online. The current definition in the legislation of media (apart from Cabinet meetings n the 2012 regulations which already covers new media) covers newspapers, media agencies (those who supply stories to newspapers) and those recording sound or video for news broadcasts (local radio and TV) as well as those classed as programme services under the Broadcasting Act 1990. Curiously that last definition is so broad it covers publishing video footage of Wirral Council meetings online (or any public meeting of a local Council).

62. These changes follow what is already provided for in the 2012 Regulations.

My reading of this is that the secondary legislation resulting from this section of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill (apart from the potential for amending provisions of earlier legislation) will extend the regulations outlined in the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (“the 2012 Regulations”) to all public meetings of local councils, as well as the other bodies specified in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

Examples of other bodies referred to in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill would be integrated transport authorities. Locally that would be Merseytravel (which may well be have changed completely and be absorbed into the Merseyside Combined Authority by the time the secondary legislation has effect) and the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority.

63. The Bill as amended would also provide that the Secretary of State has powers to ensure that the public can film, blog, or tweet at all meetings of a full council, its committees and sub-committees; meetings of an executive, its committees and sub-committees; meetings of parish and town councils and Greater London Assembly meetings. This is a new proposal which reflects the changes in technology enabling broader access to information and new methods of reporting and recording council meeting proceedings.

Personally I don’t have a mobile phone so I can’t blog or tweet live at a public meeting. If I remember correctly the guidance previously issued by the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP on filming meetings relied on legislation that technically didn’t cover parish and town councils which caused some issues. I don’t know of any parish or town councils in the Wirral and as far as I know Greater London Assembly meetings are already filmed as I’m sure I’ve previously seen Boris Johnson facing questions as the Mayor of London on the BBC Parliament channel.

64. Articles 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and 10 (freedom of expression) of the ECHR may be engaged in relation to the provisions regarding openness of council meetings. Neither of these rights is absolute and they include in their respective second paragraphs details regarding the basis on which the right may be limited.

65. Article 8 has potential to be engaged but it appears unlikely in these circumstances. The meetings being open to public attendance are unlikely to fall within the definition of “private and family life”. Lord Hope and Lord Nicholls in the case of Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd [2004] UKHL 22 both made clear in their judgements that the first step to consider if the matter falls within the sphere of private and family life. The latter described the approach to take as follows: “the touchstone of private life is whether in respect of the disclosed facts that the person in question had a reasonable expectation of privacy”. The court in HRH Prince of Wales v Associates Newspapers Ltd [2006] EWCA 1776 highlighted that whilst there was a division over the conclusions in Campbell there was no division regarding the relevant approach in law. Given that the council meetings considered by the Bill would be held in public (unless there was a justifiable reason to exclude the public), it is difficult see a sustainable argument that attendees would have a reasonable expectation of privacy so as to engage Article 8.

Article 8 is a red herring really, as pointed out there can’t be an expectation of privacy at a public meeting open to anyone to attend where there could be over a hundred present (if it’s a particularly controversial planning application) who would hear what was said and see what was going on. From what I remember, even Wirral Council’s councillors have never claimed filming can’t happen on privacy grounds.

66. Whilst it is unlikely that the attendees’ Article 8 rights would be engaged, if a successful argument were to be made, paragraph 2 of Article 8 allows for the limitation of these rights. The Article 8 rights of those who are attending the meetings (cf. to those attending and reporting) can arguably be qualified on the basis that the limitation is:

a. in accordance with the law; as prescribed by the Bill and regulations made using the powers it contains.
b. is necessary in a democratic society. This is on the basis that wide public access to meetings and reporting on meetings increases accountability. The level of scrutiny which the public expect is influenced by the availability and ease of using different reporting methods, and this has increased since the advent of social media including blogging, tweeting etc and is further influenced by the ease of access to this technology. There is an expectation now that the public should have the ability to subject their representatives to closer and more direct scrutiny; an expectation that is shared both by members of the public and their representatives.
c. is for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others; namely the Article 10 rights of those reporting the meeting.

As pointed out above, article 8 is a qualified right and the rights of people to report public meetings has to be protected.

67. The provisions which would allow for regulations to be made on the prevention of the public from filming, reporting etc of council meetings may engage Article 10. However, it should be noted that it is envisaged that prevention of filming, reporting etc will largely be in the same circumstances in which the public would also be excluded from the meeting. As such the new provisions regarding prevention of filming, reporting etc would reflect the existing provisions on exclusion, including the common law right to exclude the public from meetings to suppress disorderly conduct. Insofar as there is a limitation on the Article 10 rights of potential attendees, this restriction can be justified on the basis that the prevention of filming, reporting etc and exclusion from meetings provisions are drafted in a manner to ensure those decisions are not arbitrary. For example the existing provisions on exclusion state the grounds on which a council may decide to hold a closed meeting, which include: where confidential or sensitive information is to be disclosed or discussed; or where the public are excluded under the common law right to suppress disorderly conduct. These reasons fall within the exceptions included within paragraph 2 of Article 10. Such reasons would be necessary in a democratic society if by not having the option to exclude public attendance would prevent the council from effectively carrying out its business. Furthermore, the exclusions would be prescribed by law as the justifications for preventing filming will be set out in the regulations and the justifications for exclusion from meetings are set out in primary legislation.

Firstly the issue of the press and public being excluded from a meeting, the suggestion that if the right to film covered the whole meeting meaning that recording equipment could be left behind and record the private part of the meeting is frankly a little ridiculous! However there are people that can stay and observe the private parts of meetings (such as other councillors and officers) that if the secondary legislation was poorly drafted would have a right to film or record these private sessions when the press and public were excluded.

I have no problem (and I don’t think anybody else would) with filming being prevented during parts of the meeting that the press and public are excluded from, however the phrase “largely be in the same circumstances” hints at other reasons to prevent filming which is worrying.

The common law right to suppress disorderly conduct is referred, yet it states “provisions are drafted in a manner to ensure those decisions are not arbitrary”. Last year at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee, a Wirral councillor (Cllr Jerry Williams, Labour) (you can read the minutes for yourself here) went so far as to suggest that filming itself to him is regarded as disorderly conduct (rather embarrassingly six members of the Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee then went on to use a piece of legislation that only applies to Cabinet meetings as a rationale to prevent filming).

An opinion as to what or what isn’t disorderly conduct is (as shown in the previous paragraph) entirely arbitrary and I hope the secondary legislation states explicitly that silently filming a meeting can’t be seen as grounds for exclusion from the meeting under the disorderly conduct provisions already in the legislation.

So repeating somewhat what I said above, in my view the justification of preventing filming by excluding the press and public from the meeting is fine, the issue of preventing abuse of the disorderly conduct provision in legislation to prevent filming needs to be explicitly stated and I can’t see there being any other justifications for preventing filming.

68. Article 11, freedom of assembly and association, should also be considered. The right to freedom of assembly includes participation in public meetings. However, Article 11 is a qualified right which can be restricted. The basis of the restrictions include that is in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. As such the position in relation justifying qualification of Article 11 is much the same as it is for Article 10 freedom of expression.

The right of the public to be at public meetings is already in legislation and the fact that Article 11 specifically states “peaceful assembly” means that article 11 isn’t engaged if people engage in disorderly conduct. I presume this is referring to the public and press being excluded from private sessions of meetings.

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