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.)