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

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.

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