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Barking and snapping

WHEN can you take a photo of a council chamber? Barking and Dagenham Council refused LFB Member Larry Herman permission to photograph BNP councillors taking up their seats just after being elected in May. He was told he could enter to observe and make notes, but he was not allowed to photograph proceedings. Correspondence followed between Freelance Organiser John Toner and Barking Council. So can journalists take photographs, film meetings or make audio recordings in a council chamber?

We phoned six London borough council press offices. Just as Barking's chief executive Rob Whiteman had told Mr Herman, they all said that councils can set their own policies on photography in their meetings, but none of them could point to legislation that empowered councils to do this. One press office believed it was "customary".

The Department for Communities and Local Government found us the legislation we had all been looking for. The Local Government Act 1972 states that: "nothing in this section shall require a principal council to permit the taking of photographs of any proceedings". The Act says that the chair of the council meeting can permit photography, film and sound recording if they want to, but that they don't have to do so. Nor do councils have to explain their decision to refuse permission to take pictures. The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 obliges councils to give the press "reasonable facilities for taking their report", but it doesn't mention photography.

Haringey and Islington both have web-casts and archived video of their council meetings on their websites. But after a frustrating half hour we gave up trying to play either.

Haringey said that photographing their council meetings is "not normally a difficulty" as long as it's not "disruptive of the business of the meeting".

Hackney doesn't allow photography or TV crews in council chambers, although audio recording is allowed. Islington council often hosts photographers, and they've accommodated film crews at past meetings.

Here is some advice to photographers from various council press offices:

  • Seek permission from the chair of the meeting with as much notice as possible, and also approach the press office in advance. Be ready with suggestions about where in the chamber you are planning to set up your equipment.
  • There are time limits on council business, and they will exclude media who get in the way or waste other people's time setting up.

And there appears to be nothing to stop artistically gifted reporters from sketching at council meetings without asking permission - unlike the criminal courts, which forbid it.

We invite readers to share with us their own experiences of access to council meetings, and we especially invite out-of-town freelances to broaden our London-centric perspective by telling us how it works outside the capital.

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