Birmingham Council meetings should be televised

At Birmingham City Council this afternoon, Deputy Council Leader Paul Tilsley received an award.  I didn’t catch why he was being honoured because it happened during “announcements” at the beginning of the meeting, but it was hard to miss his reaction upon acceptance.

He walked toward the front and gave a bow to Birmingham Post reporter Paul Dale, which I thought was odd.  Even odder, when Tilsley returned to his seat he did what I can only describe as sort of a chicken dance in front of the Lord Mayor and then waved the award under Mr. Dale’s nose.   I have no idea what this was about.

I figure the Deputy Council Leader wouldn’t be dancing if Birmingham City Council was televised, as it is in some jurisdictions in England including, as I watched last week, Stoke-on-Trent. It wouldn’t be difficult or expensive to make democracy more transparent by putting it on television because Council already has a feed which is shown on large screens at the front of the Chamber.  It would also be a smart move on City Council’s part because, for reasons I can not comprehend, most local reporters don’t attend City Council meetings.  As far as I can tell there are no radio or TV people —  only Paul Dale.  If they televised meetings, they could deliver their message directly to the voters, without any filters.

More reasons to televise Council

If Council was televised, Birmingham voters would have seen the reaction after West Midlands Police Chief Constable Chris Sims presented his annual report in December.  At a time when more than 2,000 police officers and staff are expected to be made redundant and 600 officers will be forced to retire early, a Conservative Councillor stood up and made what I thought was a remarkable contribution.  She told Mr. Sims that she felt the police were much too nice to the despondent man who threatened to kill himself by jumping off an overpass in Birmingham City Centre.  She talked about how the attempted suicide snarled traffic for hours and how she was personally inconvenienced.  She told the Chief Constable she didn’t think it was necessary for his officers to waste time by offering the desperate, suicidal man some food.  (I didn’t catch her name but another spectator told me her husband and son are also councillors so that should help people figure it out.

If Council was televised people would have seen a heartfelt standing ovation in the Chamber today for a young veteran who’s received a medal for bravery.  People would have also seen that two members of the Respect Party failed to stand and one was swatted over the head by the Councillor behind them.

If Council was televised they would have seen a Councillor in December try and tell the Chief Constable that his constituents are still angry that CCTV cameras, paid for by anti-terrorism funding, were installed in Muslim neighbouhoods.  The Councillor was heckled by some other members of Birmingham Council and warned to tone down his language by the Lord Mayor who made a brief mention of libel/slander laws.

If Council was televised, average citizens would have a chance to find out interesting things that might not make it into the newspaper.   For example, the annual housing report tabled today indicates that 99% of Birmingham Council’s housing stock now meets decency standards, compared to only 32% in 2003/2004.  Another report carried the nugget that City inspectors brought gold to dealers all over Birmingham and found that the most shady operators were offering only 17 – 24% of value.  This isn’t illegal, but caveat emptor.  And if Council was televised, people could find out vital life or death information, as was imparted by Councillor Shafique Shah today who reported a drastic rise in crime in Bordsley Green including a “flash mob drug dealing problem”.  If I lived there, I would sure want to know that.

In the year 2011, televised coverage of Council is not a frill, but rather a democratic right.  The voters elected these people and they have every right to see first hand what they voted for, good, bad or somewhere in between.

(3 Feb 2011 addition:  I’ve been informed by the Birmingham Council Press Office that Paul Tilsley was accepting  an award for “Customer First”, which won an e-Government National Award for excellence in local innovation.)

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16 Responses to Birmingham Council meetings should be televised

  1. Pete Ashton says:

    Sounds like the inconvenienced councilor was Deirdre Alden of the Alden clan (husband John and son Robert) who stood for MP in Edgbaston last year.

    She has a blog. http://deirdrealden.wordpress.com/

  2. hedykorbee says:

    Thanks Pete — you’re right, it was Deirdre Alden.

  3. John O'Shea says:

    Not quite sure that Dreary’s site qualifies as a blog – she steadfastly refuses to allow anyone to comment or interact. Shame really.

    • Pete Ashton says:

      I got into a quite heated discussion with one of my fellow bloggeratti about whether or not Deirdre’s blog was a blog. Yes, that’s how we roll. You so wish you were us, don’t you.

      My argument is a blog doesn’t have to have comments. Loads of blogs don’t. What it’s really missing is links. Oh, and an awareness of anything on the rest of the Internet.

      Nice pictures though.

      • John O'Shea says:

        Pete – I’d say that one of the defining elements of a blog is the interactivity. Without that, it is set only to broadcast to the unfeeling masses. But hey, that’s just my two cents worth. Your mileage may vary.

        And I’m living the dream too – discussing another blog on a blog that isn’t even mine. Yay.

      • Pete Ashton says:

        The pedantic point would be that interactivity does not necessarily mean comments. For much more digression on the topic than is strictly healthy see http://daringfireball.net/2010/06/whats_fair (scroll down past the Apple stuff to “As for Wilcox’s arguments regarding user-submitted comments”)

  4. John O'Shea says:

    Forgot to add – the kit is there to supply a live stream of the council meeting and this was supposed to be happening some while back, but somebody hasn’t got around to connecting everything up. Can’t think why.

  5. John O'Shea says:

    Hell, while I’m here, I’ll say that the little bows are a convention of courtesy towards the Lord Mayor and the Chair.

    Typically, the press table at the front also clears fairly early on. This may be because of deadlines, boredom or a need to hit the pub before the rest of the City leaves work, I’ve never been entirely clear on which.

  6. hedykorbee says:

    Got this email from the press office re: status of televising Council: “On the issue of broadcasting meetings, it is something the council is looking at, and a few options have been kicked around over some time. That process is ongoing but no final decisions have been made yet. ” By the way, Cllr. Tilsley bowed down twice — once to Dale and then again to the Lord Mayor. Unless British politicians are in the habit of bowing down to the media, I think he was making some sort of point.

  7. hedykorbee says:

    This blog post explains much.

  8. Niall Crowley says:

    The problem is not ‘transparency’ but the fact that politics on all levels (national, local etc) has been emptied out of any meaning. As a young teenager during the Falklands/Malvinas war, I was glued to BBC radio, listening to Parliamentary discussion about the war (there was no TV in the Commons then). Real issues were being debated and there were some political differences (even though so-called radical Michael Foot supported Thatcher’s invasion). Today’s council chambers and parliaments are populated by grey-suited technocrats who huff and puff about tiny details, when in fact, there is virtually no difference between them. I don’t see the point in televising such things – people already know how dull and irrelevant it is. It’s going to take more than TV and transparency to reinvigorate politics.

    • Pete Ashton says:

      @Niall,

      Two things:

      1) People don’t know this. My first experience of Mike Whitby in 2006-ish talking was at a book reading thingy in the Council Chamber and I was horrified. I had no idea our councilors were so awful. At the time I was thinking of paying more attention to local politics and this was an eye-opener. If more people could have their eyes opened it can’t be a bad thing in getting some change.

      2) As John says above, the kit for streaming is all there and they’re already filming it for the big screens in the chamber. It doesn’t require much (not even money if they used UStream or something.)

      Like all things, getting it seen it’s going to chance anything in itself. It takes people’s desire for change to do that. But lifting the veil helps fuel that desire.

  9. Niall Crowley says:

    Hi, all fair points Pete, though I suspect the wider population are aware how awful they are – we haven’t gone from being one of the most politically engaged nations in Europe to one of the least, over the last 30 years for nothing. TV in Parliament hasn’t made people more interested in the Commons. In fact they have become less interested, but I think that has to do with external, political factors, rather than with TV.

    So, by all means lets televise it (and I’ll try my best to stay awake) but I believe that we need to win the argument that this isn’t how politics should be, and that we, ourselves, need to find other ways of doing things rather than let the men in grey suits take all the decisions for us.

  10. oldish hack says:

    In reference to paragraph about the Chief Constable’s appearance before the council, I take it the use of the word ‘remarkable’ was in the context of the speaker’s stupidity. Has politics plumbed to such depths that our ‘leaders’ would sooner society turn a blind eye to someone in need because it might inconvenience us? Has it come to a point when the time taken to scrape a suicidal individual off the road after they had jumped to their death is more acceptable than spending a few more hours to save them to stop us being so inconvenienced? Maybe televising the council meetings would help reveal another side to politicians. Unfortunately, I doubt many people would tune in to watch.

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