Some thoughts following some bedtime reading and a radio interview with Cambridge 105 – in the context of a new law passed on reporting on council meetings
The announcement of the new regulations is here – Parliament having approved these. Earlier this week, Julian Clover of community radio station Cambridge 105FM invited me into the studios primarily to talk about Be The Change – Cambridge. That was prior to the announcement being made about the change in the law. Given that I’m one of the people directly affected by the law due to live-tweeting and now filming meetings, we had a discussion about the new regulations as well. Still being a novice with digital video, I chose to film the discussion on my phone – mainly for my own learning but also to raise awareness that people can film council meetings if there was any doubt before.
The Twitter exchanges in this link show there was some uncertainty about live tweeting from meetings. Either way, this has now been cleared up by the new regulations, and situations such as the one Richard Taylor found himself in in the clip below, will become things of the past.
The rise of the community reporter
One of the things Julian Clover and I discussed off-air was the link between the media and community reporters. In the case of Cambridge 105FM, they are a not-for-profit organisation relying heavily on volunteers, membership fees and donations. (See here). As a station that serves Cambridge and not much further on the FM frequency (due to the conditions of their radio licence), having close community links is essential – as is their subscription to IRN’s national news feed.
In Cambridge 105FM’s case, Julian said having residents/community reporters summarising what happened at council meetings through podcasts or voice memos, or even interviewing individual councillors for short 30 second soundbites would be a great help to the station and the wider community. In principle I agree. After all, I’m experimenting with this very thing myself as this audioclip shows.
Community reporting and local democracy
As far as local democracy goes, there are a handful of us that attend Cambridge council meetings fairly regularly who also have enough technical and/or specialist knowledge, the confidence and time to carry out this role. I dare say that many people with smartphones have the technical knowledge to record, edit, publish and publicise what happens in council meetings. Whether they have the desire to attend such meetings or the specialist knowledge of some of the more arcane procedures or difficult areas of local government (such as planning law) is up for debate. Despite having worked a short while in planning casework in my early civil service days (Yeah! – we ***owned*** those tree preservation order appeal files!)
I tended not to stick around for the bits of meetings that involved planning applications – even though the decisions were essential. One which I stuck around for last year involved a local council committee ordering a local resident to demolish an extension he had built in breach of planning laws. But someone building in a conservation area without permission, or cutting down trees protected by law can raise local tensions. A committee of councillors, a couple of committee staff, a planning officer, the resident concerned and their representative and an audience of…six locals and a dragon fairy…it’s not the most glamorous night out. But these are the grass roots of democracy, and they happen all too often under-reported in communities across the country.
Community reporting and impartiality
The broadcast media has to report politics impartially – not showing any favour to any political party. Going by this judgement, it also extends to adverts. Both Cambridge 105FM and Shape Your Place – Cambridge are currently appealing for more people to become community reporters. In principle I don’t have a problem with this. The bit that concerns me is the availability of accessible training for those that want to take on this role. The last thing a community radio station wants is to lose its licence because clips submitted by community reporters were unwittingly breaching regulations on impartiality. Being a community reporter is not the same as being a journalist. I also don’t see them as necessarily being in competition with each other.
Community reporting and local news journalists
In the case of the latter – in my case lets take Elodie Harper of ITV Anglia and Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News because I know them both, they need to know that their news sources are credible, trustworthy and authoritative. A couple of months ago, I was walking past Cambridge railway station and spotted a recently-skewered car – the driver of which having ignored the rising bollard signs. A couple of Twitter exchanges between me and Chris, and a short news story was on the Cambridge News website soon after – with Puffles getting a photo credit. That for me is an example of how some of the more routine news stories can be sourced. As the trained journalist, Chris asked a series of specific questions that I, as an untrained community reporter wouldn’t have thought of.
That’s what good training does – you instinctively click into work mode when something comes up. In this case, Chris’s training taught him to ask a series of basic but essential questions of me – the source, in response to what I had posted. It’s similar when I end up having political discussions with local political activists & their ideas. My old civil service training kicks in and I throw basic, essential and sometimes tricky public policy-related questions at them. (How are you funding it? What are the top three risks? How are you managing those risks? What are the alternatives to your policy and why have you discounted them – and on what evidence base?)
In the case of Elodie being on TV, she’s faced with a greater geographical area so inevitably covers fewer but ‘bigger’ news items. While Chris can be out and about alone, Elodie often has to work with at least one other person – eg camera operator. Also, Elodie has the additional role of being a news anchor as she has been on Anglia News this week. The challenge for both Elodie and Chris in this new digital media era is working out who their eyes and ears on the ground are in places where they cannot be. In Chris’s case when two council meetings are scheduled at the same time in different venues, having a familiar face live-tweeting from the meeting he otherwise misses can be a great help.
A challenge for Cambridge?
I think it’s worth exploring this further with local print and broadcast media collectively: what should the relationship between them and community reporters be? What basic training opportunities should be made available to the latter – and at whose cost? What opportunities are there for more formal arrangements with colleges, universities and with adult & continuing education providers? After all, students at Cambridge Regional College have already demonstrated they can produce a broadcast-quality local version of Question Time.