Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Council Leader orders twitter 'ban' during meetings

I don't know what pushed Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson over the edge today, but he turned what should have been a good news day into one where he will get no end of bad press.

The reason was his attempt to institute a twitter ban during the Cabinet meeting.

After being absent for the first part of the meeting, Cllr Robertson arrived and proceeded to read some of the tweets that had been posted by Cllr Jeremy Rowe and myself. He then claimed that the council's new broadcast policy meant that he had the power to ban the use of twitter during meetings and said that he was doing so, banning the public and media as well as councillors.

As Western Morning News Deputy News Editor Scott Harrison tweeted:
Sad thing about meeting's many good points is they are now lost to story about new Twitter ban. Blame Alec.
Indeed. There were many excellent decisions taken during the meeting, including on buses and the culture white paper. But my twitter timeline and, indeed the Council's own webcast page, were then dominated by discussion of the Twitter 'ban'. Just as former Radio One DJ Mike Read attempt to ban the Frankie Goes To Hollywood song Relax spectacularly backfired, so I think this will too.

I'm certain that Cllr Robertson has got it wrong in terms of the constitution. He claimed to be invoking the new broadcasting policy which was designed to open up council meetings to media filming. Instead, he claimed that the new rules prohibit tweeting without express prior consent. I have no doubt that the legal officer will force Cllr Robertson to back down.

But what does it say about the fabled culture of 'openness and transparency' that Cllr Robertson talks about the whole time? Just look at the response provoked:

  • @PenzanceSeafront tweeted "Tweets from CC meetings by cllrs are informed & interactive summaries of what happens."
  • WMN writer Graeme Demianyk tweeted "Good old @CornwallCouncil inching toward another PR disaster by ban on Twitter at County Hall."
  • And @APenzanceBoy said "It's the best way we have to keep up to date with what's going on #keepupthegoodwork"
And that's the point of why some of us tweet during debates. We don't pretend to hold the only acceptable point of view - other opinions are available. But we do want to put our view across for those who want to read them.

Of course the media have been asking Cornwall Council for the reasons for this ban. The official response:

"Cornwall Council has not banned the use of social media such as Twitter from its meetings.

The Council is fully committed to openness, transparency and engagement including via social media platforms such as Twitter.

In the case of today’s meeting, the Leader was very concerned about the inappropriate nature of some of the tweets posted by Members and their potential impact on the reputation of the Council. He expressed these views during the meeting and instructed Members to refrain from making these inappropriate comments.

Today’s meeting of the Cabinet, as with all meetings of the full council, the Cabinet and strategic planning was webcast, not only on the Council’s website, but also via local broadcast media. This demonstrates our ongoing commitment to making our meetings more open and transparent."

If this is the beginning of a furious backtracking then it is to be welcomed. But it does imply that what is at stake is not the principle of tweeting during meetings, but a dislike of the content of what is said.

It's no longer a blanket ban - which might look luddite but is the same rule for all - but censorship of individual members of the opposition.

And crucially, it's not what was actually said during the meeting.

If readers want to decide for themselves what Cllr Robertson actually said then they can watch the webcast when the replay goes up (so long as it doesn't develop 'technical problems').


Blogwall Bugle said...

The problem is Alex, I'm not sure how you square your recent declaration of dislike of personal attacks with some of the frankly childish stuff that was on twitter in the early stages of the meeting. That was what derailed this thing in the first instance, and although no lover of Councillor Robertsons politics, I can see his difficulty. He is trying to bring some sense of gravitas to the proceedings, tweeters are making references to Dr Who and using phrases such as 'Cabinet Member for Flogging Things Off'. Freedoms have to be treated with respect or we loose them.

Alex Folkes said...

Hi Blogwall Bugle
I understand your viewpoint. I'm not responsible for the tweets of others and didn't make the tweets re Dr Who or 'Cabinet Member for flogging things off'. You could no doubt point to other tweets that I did post, but I think they would show that where they might be seen as an attack they were on the policy or performance of a public office - not about personality, personal characteristics or personal life.