Tories try to get me suspended for putting council meetings on YouTube

In haste, because I’ve got a busy afternoon working on some great upgrades for Netmums, this morning I had to attend a standards hearing due to a Tory complaint. Tories weren’t happy that I put clips of council meeting webcasts, which are already online, onto YouTube and then my blog.

The panel decided I had breached the code and agreed some sanctions – I’ll type the details up later but in essence suspension hangs over my head for just putting some video on YouTube to make it easier for residents to see. So the Conservative attack on our local democracy continues – they forced through the cabinet system early, they have cut speaking times, the number of questions and motions councillors can put and now they’re trying to block our making videos more accessible. So much for their priority of openness and transparency!

I’m grateful to officers that, after my request, they have already published all the papers for the panel online. My presentation to the panel is copied below, more later. I will be appealing this decision.

UPDATE: Perhaps the oddest thing of this whole bizarre episode is that, in spite of their obvious unhappiness with the putting of Council webcasts onto YouTube videos, they haven’t asked me to take them down!

My presentation to the Panel

The Standards Committee’s Assessment Panel considered that Cllr Kemble’s complaint against me could be considered as being under three points of the code:

  • Failure to treat others with respect;
  • Failure, when using the resources of the authority -
    • To act in accordance with the authority’s reasonable requirements; and
    • To ensure that such resources are not used improperly for political or party political purposes.

I will argue that I have not breached the code under any of these three points. And just to clarify, the videos I put online were not edited in any way, just cropped down to be shorted. Full details of the meeting they were taken from was included next to the videos on YouTube.

I will address these three items in turn, briefly as most of the arguments have been covered in the papers.

Failure to treat others with respect

The investigating officer does not find that I have failed to treat others with respect. Cllr Kemble complained that I had been “underhand and devious”.

Given that the council meetings are held in public, broadcast to the world via the Internet, and I merely put portions of them on another part of the Internet (and so still in public) – my actions cannot have been underhand or devious – as they were clearly there for all to see!

If these had been videos of speeches delivered at private events I would accept the need to request permission before publishing the videos. But these videos were already published and the meetings already very clearly public.

Furthermore they did nothing more than show what happened at the council meetings. Anything “malicious or bullying” at the meetings themselves would have been ruled out of order, as well as the being subject of their own standards complaint. Merely pointing to sections of a meeting cannot be taken as being malicious or bullying.

So I refute this aspect of the complaint fully, and have done so in more detail in my letter to Mr Foley of 4th August 2009.

Failure to act in accordance with the authority’s reasonable requirements

Again, as the investigating officer notes, at the time of the complaint the webcasting protocol did nothing to restrict my actions in terms of putting clips on YouTube. The protocol did however encourage openness as do the Ten General Principles of Public Life included in the code of conduct and promoted by the Committee for Standards in Public Life.

I believe I acted completely properly in this regard and so agree with the report that there isn’t a case to answer with regards to failing to act in accordance with the authority’s reasonable requirements.

Failure to ensure that such resources are not used improperly for political or party political purposes

Section 6(b)(ii) of the code is the nub of the matter where I disagree with the investigating officer’s reasoning.

I would like to clarify my understanding of the word “political”. In my view everything I do as a councillor is political and politics is the ‘trade’ I am in when acting as a councillor. So when I said that I posted the clips onto YouTube for political reasons, that is because I believe council meetings and everything relating to them is political. However I do not believe my usage, as will be addressed late, was ‘political’ in the sense meant by the code of conduct.

In the investigating officer’s summary report he accepts that “there was no material loss” to the council – so it is arguable whether any resources were used at all. The report also mentions that facilities and resources can only be used properly if justified as being part of their roles as a councillor. The Independent Remuneration Panel’s definitions of formal councillor duties includes attending full council and cabinet meetings, which is exactly what I was doing in the clips published – hence their use was proper.

Of the 5 clips this complaint covers, one is just myself speaking to second a notice of motion on pre-pay energy meter charges. This was a motion jointly proposed with the Labour group – it was not party political. Furthermore, as the House of Commons allows MPs to post videos of their own speeches on YouTube without difficulty, I do not see why my own speech should be cause for concern under this complaint.

That leaves the four other clips involving questions about communal bins from myself with responses from Councillors Mears and Theobald.

Communal bins were at that time being rolled out in my ward, as they were in neighbouring wards. All councillors whose wards were being affected asked questions in council and cabinet meetings, as did those with an interest in the Environment Cabinet brief. At that time I was not the Green Group’s waste and recycling spokesperson, I was purely acting as a ward councillor as were others from all parties when asking such questions.

Furthermore, in his interview, Cllr Kemble alleges that I had placed the videos on my blog to further my ambitions for the European elections. I didn’t post anything on my site relating to the European Elections until 12th May 2009, more than two months after Cllr Kemble sent in his complaint.

Long before and long after Cllr Kemble’s complaint I have been posting on my blog reports of my council work including text, sections of meeting minutes, photos and videos. So his accusation that these clips were posted for those reasons do not stand up.

Finally, if webcasts were deemed political they should have been taken down during the election ‘purdah’ periods but they were not this year nor last year. The videos just show members undertaking their democratic duties, as is right and proper.

So, the clips were not posted for political or party political reasons because members from all affected wards and all parties were asking similar questions. I was not campaigning for European Parliament at that time and I was not the Green Group’s spokesperson on this matter at the time, Cllr Rufus was.

So on that basis I do not believe I have broken 6(b)(ii).

However I also would argue that I have not broken this section of the code on the basis that I have not used the council’s resources. So not only was the act not political, but furthermore no council resources were used to post the videos to YouTube.

As repeatedly stated, and agreed by the investigating officers, I used my personal computer and broadband to view the webcasts as I often do to refresh my memory before writing a blog post.

On seeing some pertinent sections I screen grabbed the video for posting on YouTube. Technically this did not touch the Council’s servers further whatsoever. To view the webcast the video file is downloaded to your computer over the Internet. Rewinding to view sections already viewed just retrieves the video from your computer’s local memory, no further Internet access is required. Hence the video capture used no council resources in terms of computers or broadband beyond what I used to view the webcast normally. Viewing the webcast alone cannot reasonably be considered a breach of the code!

Furthermore digital files like the webcast videos are what economists call ‘non-rival goods’. That is they are unlike a cake, for example. If I eat all of a cake then you cannot eat it too, but with a digital file I can use it and so can you with neither of us being any worse off.

Indeed, I can copy a digital file online a thousand times at zero cost for all my friends and the original will still be in perfect condition. A cake cannot manage that feat – you would need to bake a new cake, with the costs of all the ingredients, to copy it even once.

So in my copying the video for use on YouTube I did not deprive anyone of the ability to view or save the webcast in the future. In fact I made it easier for people to view certain points of interest from council meetings.

The final argument made by the investigating officer is that the webcast’s copyright is a resource of the council. As a matter of principle I disagree. These webcasts show elected members, officers and residents participating in public meetings which make up the workings of our local democracy. If they belong to the council they only do so in trust for the good of the entire city. Indeed if one were to take the idea that the copyright is a resource of the council then should each person shown on camera not get a royalty payment for each sale of the webcast covering their recorded performance?

There is no serious commercial market for these webcasts, they are a public good. A £35 charge is made for copying them onto disc, that is to cover the cost of someone actually doing the job of retrieving the archive, getting a disc and delivering it to the member of the public who wants the disc. This £35 charge is in no way a meaningful source of income for the council.

In Form A (ii) the investigating officer rebuts this argument claiming good authority for intellectual property having financial and commercial value. However the citations provided relate to the world of commerce – of course Apple or Hewlett-Packard have plenty of value in their patents, copyrights and other intellectual property. But this council and its members are owned by the people of this city and acts on their behalf.

Parliament, despite complex TV licensing agreements for video coverage, already allows MPs to post videos of their own speeches on YouTube and is shortly going to allow all clips to be posted by anyone on sites such as YouTube.

Indeed minutes from council meetings are already regularly copied onto local blogs by councillors and members of the public. The council has, as yet, not been seen to pursue any of these bloggers for breach of the council’s intellectual property. If the investigating officer’s line of argument was to believed, these bloggers too are depriving the council of financial resources. But no action has arisen, because of course these are resources for the good of the whole city. In addition, copyright law has a provision for ‘fair dealing’ which permits the use of limited excerpts, even in commercial works, without recompense or license to the copyright holder.

So, I have already made the case that these clips were not political, and so the charge of “Failure to ensure that such resources are not used improperly for political or party political purposes” falls. I have also argued that technically, I did not use any additional IT resources beyond those needed to view the clip. So I did not breach the code on that count. Finally I have detailed how I did not deprive the council of any intellectual property or implied financial resource because digital goods are non-rival, the council has not previously chosen to enforce any intellectual rights on previous copying, they have no meaningful commercial value and there is a fair-dealing option under copyright which covers reasonable excerpts.

Thus, I respectfully put to the panel that there is no case for me to answer. I have not breached the code with regard to:

Failure to treat others with respect


Failure to act in accordance with the authority’s reasonable requirements

Failure to ensure that such resources are not used improperly for political or party political purposes

I thank you for your consideration, I urge you to reject these charges and am open to your questions.

[ENDS]

3 thoughts on “Tories try to get me suspended for putting council meetings on YouTube”

  1. Jason, this is truly horrible, I hear you have been suspended for this. In my opinion, the standards board have got this very wrong. I hope for the sake of democracy and free speech you win your appeal. I feel nothing but contempt and anger for the people who brought this complaint against you.

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