Council slammed as ‘tinpot dictatorship’ after decision to remove archive

A town hall has come under fire from opposition councillors for its decision to remove its archive of broadcast public meetings which has been branded a ‘backwards step for trust’.

Oldham council had previously webcast major committee meetings, including cabinet, planning and full council live on YouTube, where they could be watched back at any time. However the authority now says that meetings will only be shown live in real-time, and will no longer be available to watch back after they have concluded.

It has also removed its archive of videos from the streaming platform, meaning at least three years of footage of scores of meetings has disappeared from public view. Liberal Democrat and Conservative opposition councillors have both separately written to Oldham’s chief executive, Harry Catherall, asking for the decision to be reversed.

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Royton North Conservative member Lewis Quigg described the actions of the town hall as being like a ‘tinpot dictatorship’.

However the council says it took the decision to remove past meetings because footage of them had been edited and ‘taken out of context’ and used to ‘unfairly target and illicit hate and harassment towards people’.

In his letter to the chief executive, Lib Dem group leader Coun Howard Sykes said: “I am deeply dismayed by this decision, which I feel represents a very unwelcome backwards step in terms of openness, accountability and trust; all at a time when we as councillors should be striving to demonstrate good practice across those three key pillars of local democracy.

“Oldham council has described its ambition to become a ‘listening council’ that brings residents closer to decision making. Ensuring that residents, businesses and journalists have access to council meetings should be of paramount importance to Oldham council as part of this ambition.

“We cannot call ourselves a listening council if we are preventing people listening to council processes. Without a robust and formal process for capturing what is said at council meetings and committees – in the way that Hansard does in Parliament – recorded meetings play a vital role in our democratic process.

Coun Howard Sykes
Coun Howard Sykes

“I am writing as leader of the opposition to urge the council to reconsider this move, to ask how the council reached this decision and what the reasons and motivations were in doing so.”

In his letter to Mr Catherall, Coun Quigg raised the issue of public money being used to pay for the broadcast of the meetings, which will now not be available after the live event.

“Given taxpayers pay for these meetings they have every right to view them, as do the press and the wider country, given taxpayers paid for these meetings to be recorded,” he said.

“Such actions are akin to those of a banana republic and tinpot dictatorship. The council is meant to be open and transparent and what we say in meetings whether right or wrong is there to see.

“This decision must be reversed and the person who made the decision should resign. Freedom and democracy are under assault and the actions of the council bring it into disrepute.”

In response, the council stated that it had had to ‘review’ its policies around broadcasting meetings.

Sayyed Osman, deputy chief executive, said: “It has sadly come to our attention that some people have been video editing and using footage from public meetings out of context. This has in our view then been used maliciously in communication to unfairly target and illicit hate and harassment towards people.

“This has meant that it was necessary to review all our policies and procedures around public meetings, including webcasting and web hosting of videos. We value transparency and democracy and we are keen to ensure we look at best practice to get this right whilst ensuring we meet our duty of care towards our staff who are being impacted unfairly.

“In the meantime, please be reassured that public meetings will continue to be made accessible via a live stream on our website. The minutes of each public meeting can be accessed via the council’s website.”

The decision follows two fiery full council meetings in June and July, where residents and protesters angrily heckled councillors about the issue of child sexual exploitation in the borough.

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Manchester Evening News – Oldham