Thursday, 26 January 2012

Why Twitter is good (and banning it is bad) - UPDATED

Following on from yesterday's rumpus, it's important to consider why councillors, the press and public should have the right to use twitter during council meetings. I think there are three core reasons - it can help debate, it's an issue of free speech and it engages the public in what happens in their name.

The first of these reasons was, ironically, shown earlier in yesterday's Cabinet meeting - before Cllr Robertson arrived. An item on the agenda concerned solar farms and the council's desire to invest the remaining £10m of their planned green energy pot into schemes that would both cut carbon emissions and save money. This was a scheme started by the former Lib Dem county council and carried on by Cllr German and the current cabinet with our support. It was halted by the Government's decision to cut the feed in tariff (ie the amount paid to green electricity producers) and the paper before cabinet looked at what we could do in the light of that news.

But at the very start of the meeting I saw the news via Twitter that the Government had lost its appeal against the decision that their ending of the higher feed in tariff was unlawful. A new cut off date was now set and this is five weeks away. This gives the Council a new window to invest in schemes.

This news changes the nature of the debate. Had we not known about it then the Cabinet discussion would have been a waste of time as it was based on the wrong, out of date facts. So twitter saved the council time and money.

The second reason that twitter is a good thing is an issue of free speech. When a council decides to suspend the right to comment because it thinks that some of the comments being made are 'inappropriate' we are entering very dangerous territory. Remember that this ban, as stated at the time by the Leader, applied to the public and press as well as to opposition councillors.

Before the Leader announced the ban, he read out a few tweets from earlier in the meeting. The two of mine that he chose to read concerned the fact that he and two colleagues had chosen to meet with a journalist from a local government magazine that has shortlisted Cornwall Council for five awards rather than attend cabinet. I'm delighted that Cornwall is being recognised, but I questioned the Leader's priorities in this instance.

The absence of the Leader and Cllrs Ridgers and Toms was highlighted by the pretty shoddy treatment of three public questioners who had come to ask about plans for transport for people with disabilities. In Cllr Toms absence (and that of any senior officer from his department) it was left to Cllr Rule to read a prepared answer. No follow-up questions could be heard and the questioners left very disappointed. Cabinet Member Cllr Burden called their treatment 'disgraceful'. (Cllr Toms subsequently apologised to the questioners).

It was apparently ok for Cllr Burden to use the word 'disgraceful' in the meeting (and presumably on the webcast) but any tweets by opposition members on the subject led to an instant ban.

So if 'inappropriate' tweets are to be banned, who is to make the decision? Will the Leader be sitting as Censor-in-Chief during meetings or will there simply be a blanket prohibition of any dissent? Are we entering the time of Kim Jong Alec?

And then there is the issue of encouraging political debate.

There are six different political groupings within the Council and, whilst we will agree on a lot of things, there are fundamental issues of policy over which we disagree. The Cabinet is a committee made up of just ten members from two of those groups and, whilst other councillors can attend and are usually allowed a brief chance to contribute to debates, we do not have the same rights as Cabinet members. So twitter (and blogs) are the way that different opinions can be put forward.

I don't seriously believe that anyone takes what opposition councillors tweet as being the policy of Cornwall Council and it is quite clear that other opinions are available. It is also the case that each councillor is legally responsible for what they say, whether in person or on-line. It is not an issue for the council unless the individual purports to speak on behalf of the authority. A large number of people follow the council's webcast and read the comments being posted on it. Many of these are re-posted by council officers on Cornwall's own website. So people can hear what the cabinet are saying and see what others think at the same time. I think that's a pretty healthy state of affairs, but it appears Cllr Robertson would like only a single viewpoint to emerge.

I understand that some will say that councillors should not be using twitter during meetings because they should be concentrating on the debate. I think it is a matter for each councillor to judge to what extent they can multi-task. In the case of yesterday's Cabinet meeting that decision is pretty easy. As we are not members of the Cabinet and have no vote, we cannot be distracted from our duties. But there were members of the Cabinet who were tweeting and sending emails and even one who was resting his eyes for a period but still felt able to vote on the issues at hand.

In my case, I have found it very easy to follow and participate in a debate whilst also having twitter open. I'd draw the line if I was in the chair or if it was a quasi-judicial committee such as licensing or planning, but with tweeting allowed from a court room and in Parliament, why not Cornwall Council?

UPDATE - Steve Double has commented on this story to the BBC and (shock, horror) I couldn't agree more with what he is quoted as saying.

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