Filming council meetings is once again back in the news, this time in England where a bizarre episode took place this week at a meeting of Huntingdonshire District Council when Richard Taylor, armed with a supportive tweet from Eric Pickles, insisted on his right to film a council meeting. Last week the police were called to a meeting of Bexley Council in London when a man tried to audio record proceedings.
The nub of the problem in England is that while Eric Pickles has issued guidance telling councils to open up and allow members of the public to film or record meetings, a good many councils have constitutions which either ban filming and recording, or allow it only by prior agreement or the permission of the chair.
Although the council's constitution and standing orders in Carmarthenshire are completely silent on filming and recording, the authority insists that filming and recording by anyone other than the council itself are prohibited.
Live streaming of meetings of the full council began two months ago as part of a pilot, and although a review is a little early, some trends are beginning to emerge.
One of the stock arguments deployed by opponents of filming and transparency in general is that filming meetings will encourage elected members to act up in front of the cameras.
Judging from the last two meetings, there is no evidence to back that up. The Independents, with a few ghastly exceptions, remain as dumbstruck as they have ever been. Few of the Labour councillors have anything to say for themselves either, and leave most of the talking to Kev. Perhaps the only noticeable change in that quarter is that Cllr Colin Evans (Lab, Pontaman), who unlike his neighbour and leader can actually form a coherent sentence, appears to have gone camera shy.
The first meeting to be filmed was the AGM, which is strictly for lovers of municipal pomp and insomniacs only.
The second meeting was a rather more lively affair, not to say car crash, but it was no different in style or substance to any of the dire meetings which punctuated the second half of 2012. What we got at the last meeting was Carmarthenshire County Council warts and all, the only difference being that this time it was caught on camera.
There were a couple of worrying signs of what may lay ahead when Cllr Callum Higgins (Lab) complained that Plaid had tabled a motion (about planning and the Welsh language) which he felt should have been discussed behind closed doors. Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) was also told that his complaint about being covertly filmed by council officers would be dealt with outside the chamber (i.e. off camera).
Dim o flaen y plant. Pas devant les enfants. Not in front of the children.
Another stock argument trotted out by the anti-transparency brigade is that allowing the public to film or record meetings would enable people to quote councillors or officers out of context. As far as we know, nobody has so far produced any examples of where this has happened, and the reality is that some denizens of County Hall have rather more to fear from being quoted accurately in context.
A consequence of broadcasting meetings over the Internet is that the public gallery, rarely populated by more than a handful of anoraks, was apparently completely empty in June, and it is likely to stay that way.
Not only can the public watch from the comfort of their own homes when they like, but they can also click on the relevant agenda items to see what is being discussed.
Visitors to the public gallery, on the other hand, are still required to sign in despite only having access to the public gallery (not a requirement until the #daftarrest incident), and have to sit on rock hard benches without the benefit of copies of the agenda, have to endure a pervasive and unpleasant smell and have a restricted view of the chamber.
Filming of the important committees and scrutiny committees is still a long way off. Because all of the infrastructure is in place, it should be possible to broadcast those proceedings at very little additional cost.
Broadcasting committee meetings would also kill off demands for the public to be allowed to film and record for themselves because only hardcore masochists would want to head for the public gallery.
Ironically the one organ of the council which is least worth recording is the all powerful Executive Board, whose public meetings are little more than a formality with added PR. All important discussions and decisions are taken behind closed doors.
Streaming of meetings of the full council as a pilot was a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot further to go, and it is not at all clear what will happen at the end of the pilot. There are certainly those who would like to see the pilot lapse and be given a quiet funeral.
The campaign to get filming put on a permanent footing and to have it extended to the committees early next year needs to begin building now.