Saturday, 15 June 2013

A Healthy Dose of Criticism: carry on blogging, says Eric

Eric Pickles: embracing the principles of democracy, inspired by Mrs Angry

You may or may not know that Mrs Angry has been advising Eric Pickles for some time now on the sensitive subject of citizen journalism, (well, ok: in an informal capacity, unsolicited, via the medium of twitter, sternly worded emails, and the odd blogpost). 

Eric, who is, in his shy way, always trying to curry favour with Mrs Angry, has taken on board her advice, and has now, in a desperate attempt to impress her, even been moved to issue another valiant statement in support of bloggers, reminding councils who attempt to obstruct the reporting of their meetings that such behaviour runs counter to the best interests of the democratic process. 

Rather cheekily, the title would appear to be pinched from a Broken Barnet post on the same subject, but with no acknowledgement, tssk: still, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Look: is Eric blushing?  

but we now have this offering from DCLG:

 Says the Secretary of State:

"I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism.  

Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.  

Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests. 

I challenge the Welsh government to give taxpayers in Wales the same rights as those in England now have, and stop the scandal of free speech being suppressed in Wales’ town halls."

As one of the new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and in the interest of balance, Mrs Angry feels it is her professional duty to point out that for some inexplicable reason in this press release, Mr Pickles has chosen yet again to highlight the failings of a Labour council, ie Wirral, but neatly avoided all reference to the suppurating sore on the body of democracy that is the Tory run London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Yes, this is Broken Barnet,  where the Tory council tried to ban filming, using 'MetPro', an unlicensed and illegally operating bunch of blackshirted, quasi-military security officers to bar residents, with physical force, from the council chamber, who then covertly filmed local bloggers with hidden cameras. 

Pickles himself was driven to castigate his Tory colleagues here,over this matter in a very public forum: the CIPFA conference. Shall we remind readers of what he said? 

“I was shocked by a recent case in Barnet.

The council had hired a private security firm, MetPro, which included “keeping an eye” on the local armchair auditors and activist bloggers - at a cost of over a million pounds.

The contract had been awarded without a tendering exercise, without a written contract, and no proper invoicing.

An internal audit showed there “serious deficiencies in current procurement arrangements”, and there were no guarantees that against a repeat of such practices.

Irony of ironies - this misuse of public money was uncovered thanks to the determination of local bloggers and activists…

Including Barnet Eye. Mr Mustard. And Mrs Angry. (As she had every right to be)

Exactly the same people MetPro snooped upon.

I’ve got news for Barnet. Liveblogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like.

It’s here to stay.”

Since this humiliation, have our elected members learnt their lesson, and welcomed the active involvement of local residents and bloggers? Like f*ck they have.

And has this deterred anyone from scrutinising the activities of our scheming, pathologically secretive council? It has not: quite the reverse. At every significant council meeting now, there are usually at least two cameras filming our elected members and senior officers, and the meetings are live tweeted and reported in loving detail in several blogs. This has held the council to account in an immediate sense, but perhaps more importantly, provided very useful evidence for legal challenges.

For those citizens who have not yet begun to put their local representatives under such intense scrutiny, Uncle Eric has also taken the trouble to publish a helpful guide here to:

 'Your Council's Cabinet: going to its meetings and seeing how it works'. 

Very kind, thank you Eric: let's take a look.

Hmm ... apparently under the last government, councils - no, I simply cannot believe this - councils were able to evade the eye of public scrutiny:

"A cabinet could largely choose which of its meetings should be held in public thus hindering effective local accountability and scrutiny."

The rules of cabinet decision making are explained, in response to a question: 

"Who can make an executive decision in my council? The rules of your council define who can make a decision. The decision maker can be the executive, its committees and sub-committees, joint committees, joint sub-committees, individual councillors, and officers who have delegated responsibility from the executive to make executive decisions."

Please note, Tory councillors and senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, that these rules do NOT state:

The decision maker can be a non executive body of senior officers, overpaid private consultants and bidders meeting in unminuted secrecy to arrange a £250 million contract tender process, and change the business model to a Joint Venture, in ignorance of the elected Leader of the Council, or any member of the Cabinet, committees and sub committees, joint committees, joint sub-committes. 

This, however, is how things are run in the Tory borough whose name Eric Pickles dares not utter, for fear of the apocalyptic consequences that will ensue, in the shape of major reputational damage to the good name (or what is left of it) of the Conservative party, and the chances of any remaining electoral support in 2014 and 2015.

As it happens, there is another very important Cabinet meeting here in Broken Barnet, on the 24th June, and many local residents, taxpayers and citizen journalists will be trying to exercise their right to take part in this crucial function of the local democratic purpose: the statutory obligation to consult the electorate is blatantly ignored, and open debate and scrutiny is obstructed at every level, including by elected members of the opposition - but let's see how enthusiastically Tory leader Richard Cornelius and his colleagues support the clear wishes and stated guidance of the minister, now, shall we?


Mrs Angry said...

Well, someone could have told me I chopped off some of Eric's bon mots.Tactfully, from a safe distance.

baarnett said...

But it is unwise for us to criticise the infallibility of Mrs Angry - so we hadn't.

Mrs Angry said...

Never stopped you before, Baarnett, though, has it?