Like a number of bloggers, I turned up at last week's Barnet council meeting to call leader Lynne Hillan's bluff. Hillan had banned bloggers from filming, recording and tweeting this controversial budget-setting meeting (Barnet was due to agree about £29m in service cuts).
I'm getting a little tired of this snotty line from local elected representatives (not least because they're on thin ice in the legislative sense and as far as very recent government guidance is concerned). I fear our elected representatives forget themselves from time to time.
I'm a bit of a veteran of run-ins with high-handed councillors who hold perverse views about the public's right to collect and share local democracy news. A lot of us who write about council are. Blogger Richard Taylor's battles with Cambridge city council are legendary on the circuit. Councils’ disdainful views of bloggers who record and share council business are replicated in no end of postcodes. “The constitution does not permit the recording of meetings and the ability to do this is in the gift of the council,” West Lancashire borough council loftily informed its public in February, for all the world as though council meetings and decisions belonged to councillors, rather than the people who had voted for them.
Lynne Hillan's attempt to keep the public out last Tuesday seemed to me (and plenty of others) as good a reason as any to make sure the public got in. I turned up with the equivalent of a small television station in my bag: a camera, two phones, a laptop and a couple of alternate-provider dongles. I wasn't the only one – the long queue outside Hendon town hall lit up in the gloom like a nightclub as people prepared their cameras and phones for action.
Fair enough, too. Barnet, like most other councils, was voting through troubling service cuts last Tuesday – children's centres will close, the sheltered warden service will be terminated and so on. Only a limited number of people were allowed in the hall to hear the cuts debate – the rest were made to wait outside. Those people were relying on bloggers and reporters inside the hall. The public should not be kept in the dark about service cuts anywhere in the country.
There was something else at Barnet for bloggers, though – the chance to score a few points for the reputation of political blogging. Much muck is chucked at bloggers by politicians and the mainstream press – presumably because politicians can't control blogging, while bloggers expose the inadequacies troubling the mainstream media. Covering council cuts in the past few months has given those of us who take political blogging seriously a chance to challenge a few of the prevailing myths about bloggers who work outside mainstream press outlets.
The most damaging myth of all is, of course, that we are fumbling amateurs. “Socially inadequate, pimpled, single, seedy, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting,” was the way Andrew Marr described political bloggers (apparently without irony) at the Cheltenham literature festival last year. “The so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.”
Lynne Hillan also went for professional insult when she tried to ban political bloggers last week: “Responsible media requests... are the only thing we would allow at this stage,” she told the Barnet Times. “I do not think we would consider a request from bloggers. Only respectable media would be considered.”
I was reminded right away of the West Lancashire councillor who tried to stop me recording a December 2010 council meeting on the grounds that any recording I made would, by definition, be edited unprofessionally. No matter than I'm a journalism graduate, an NUJ member, a one-time mainstream columnist and reporter, and a blogger whom "respectable" - or mainstream - reporters have approached for contacts and content in the past few months as I have covered and tweeted council cuts around the country. Journalists employed by the mainstream are “respectable.” The rest must be written off as dabbling amateurs.
What Hillan really means when she talks about "respectable" media is journalists that the council is in a position to pressure. Good bloggers (and Barnet has some very good ones) have no such achilles. It is absolutely no coincidence that some of the most tenacious journalists of the era are online writers who occasionally dabble in mainstream product - Adam Bienkov (there is no better watchdog of London Tories), Paul Cotterill (a Labour councillor, true, but a forensic examiner of hyperlocal council business), the legendary Rog T of the Barnet eye blog (probably who Hillan had in mind when she decided to ban “citizen journalists”) and many, many more – people who turn up at meetings, read agendas, comb reports, talk to locals, turn out stories, take film, tweet decisions and never let go.
I've decided to add myself to the list, and not only because we need a narcissistic female on it. I've been writing about council for five or six years now and for the past few months. I've been travelling around the UK talking to people affected by council service cuts; I've spoken to service users and providers and generated stories that the “respectable” mainstream has pursued and acknowledged. I've also been insulted, excluded and stonewalled by local politicians and senior council managers – important conditions of entry to the “good local journalists” school in this context. It is my view that bloggers should take the put-downs as compliments. Once politicians start waving you in with a smile, you've had it. You're in PR.
Bloggers and tweeters have stolen the march on council cuts in the past few months - because we are accurate, because we've been working the local government scene for long enough to offer depth and context, because we have few friends among politicians, and because we are always there. We're not sitting in a warm office sucking quick news out of twitter feeds. We're at town halls talking to people. We are there. Whether it's Sue Luxton and I filming and tweeting from Lewisham council riots, or Barnet Unison's superb branch secretary John Burgess reporting on cuts and privatisation, or parents (who also happen to be gifted writers) of adult disabled children reporting on the realities of vicious care cuts, grassroots reporters are there.
You only need to check out the mainstream journalists who follow the country's best political bloggers on twitter to discover that there's a symbiosis at work. The best of the blogosphere is accurate, necessary and closely tracked by “respectable” mainstream outlets and politicians. Mainstream journalism offers little for writers who believe the best journalism takes place on the ground. Getting published or mentioned in the mainstream is flattering, but it isn't sustainable if you're covering grassroots issues. Big media was almost never at council before about November last year. I suspect it only started to turn up because bloggers began reporting riots at cuts meetings. When those die down, it'll probably move on.
Which will leave local bloggers alone with the likes of Lynne Hillan.That is why bloggers must be protected as they film, record, tweet and write about council meetings. Let's not forget that councillors like Hillan have demonstrated that they're prepared to put a lot of effort into keeping bloggers out. Last Tuesday's Barnet council meeting was crawling with coppers and security guards. One of the guards took my bag (the one with the camera in it). I took the laptop and phones in, ignored the rules and tweeted. A number of people did the same.
That's Hillan's problem. Bloggers are very often respectable journalists. Unfortunately for her, they're journalists who have little respect for councillors who have forgotten their place in the game.