Permission to Tweet: Where do we go from here?

In June, Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles published guidance to councils asking them to allow filming and use of social media in their meetings. Nonetheless, certain councils remain strongly opposed to this.

Wirral Council claim filming committees will “compromise health and safety.” Tower Hamlets Council stopped a 71-year-old from filming proceedings due to the risk of “reputational damage to the authority,” while Stamford Town Council banned journalists from tweeting during meetings. In one incident, a blogger in Huntingdonshire was removed from a council meeting for filming. He later advised fellow bloggers to “be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest.”

In responding to this, Pickles stated: “A small number of councils are blocking filming because they want to suppress independent reporting.” Correspondingly, in August 2013, he announced publication of new guidance formally opening-up planning appeal hearings for filming, tweeting and reporting.

Pickles claimed there was essentially a similarity between such proceedings and watching of television programmes such as Grand Designs. If people can see this on TV, why not in real life?

The new guidance issued by the Planning Inspectorate in early October 2013 now tries to clarify the rights for the public and members of the press to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings. Journalists and the wider public will be “allowed to report, record and film proceedings including the use of digital and social media,” provided “it does not disrupt proceedings.” 

At the opening of proceedings, Inspectors must explain that they can record, film and use of social media, as long as this is done responsibly. The only other specific directions given are that arrangements should be discussed in advance with a local planning authority if the equipment to be used is larger than a Smartphone or tablet.

Such information is repeated almost identically in the Planning Inspectorate’s guidance for those ‘taking part’ in appeals as a third party.

The right of individuals to attend council meetings is nothing new – so the move is a logical one. However, the suggestion that a council’s reputation could be damaged by such activity or inaccurate ‘tweeting’ of events is not without foundation. Examples of well-known politicians being ridiculed in the media after a camera has caught them sleeping ‘on the job’ serves as a warning.

Use of the internet and social media in the more formal court context has already faced scrutiny in recent years. Similar problems are also encountered in the US and New Zealand. In America, jurors frequently ‘tweet’ of their involvement. Messages posted on Twitter from the jury room include: “Loving this juror thing, its like law and order” and “Just got done with day two of jury duty. Back at it tomorrow morning… who dunn it? I dunno.”

While there is a legal restriction on photography in court, no ban exists regarding the use of live text-based communications. In December 2010, Lord Judge issued extra-judicial guidance approving journalists’ use of the internet and social networking sites for accurate and fair law reporting.

But he warned that the court had to be satisfied that “its use does not pose a danger of interference with… the individual case.” This is similar to the approach now adopted by the Planning Inspectorate.

The legal position relating to actual decisions made by local planning authorities is not altogether clear. A local authority’s meetings are to be “open to the public,” although the public can be excluded if necessary where the business involved is confidential, to prevent exempt information being disclosed, or where needed to prevent misbehaviour.

While the legislation therefore does not prohibit proceedings being filmed or social media being used, it is not expressly authorised. The public can take notes when attending planning appeals. They can type on laptops and tablet computers. So what is the difference? The efficacy and practical application of any blanket ban – such as disabling online access within council and court buildings – would be debatable and problematic. Such action would also seriously impact on individuals’ freedom of speech and basic human rights.

When updating your Facebook status or ‘tweeting’ is ever-more part of daily life, can be undertaken with one simple press of a button, and Blackberries and other Smartphones are increasingly popular, this is a habit which will be hard to break.

Pippa Plumtree-Varley is a trainee solicitor at Walker Morris.