Social media has exploded in recent years, and now councils are taking advantage of platforms like Twitter to reach out to a bigger audience. But is it doing more harm than good? Political reporter Miles O’Leary finds out.
Social media has become a greater part of our lives than ever before.
And it is something political figures have taken advantage of in order to get their message across to a bigger audience.
The use of Twitter at council meetings has taken off in the last year – and while it is a tool used for good, it is often employed to score political points and manipulate what has been debated.
Portsmouth City Council’s Tory administration gave the go-ahead in June for members of the public to tweet and record proceedings, with councillors given similar liberties.
On the one hand, it has had major benefits.
The public have been given a greater insight into what is said at debates, and can find out what happens online wherever they are.
And it means councillors can be held to greater account for their decision-making and the idea promotes a better sense of democracy.
But on the flip side, critics say councillors who are too busy tweeting are not doing the job they are paid to do – listening and contributing to debate and standing up for the people who elected them.
And there were many instances at the last meeting from all Portsmouth councillors where Twitter was used as a platform by politicians to take swipes at each other instead.
Councillors clashed as they disagreed over who said what and which way parties voted on motions.
One tweet sent by Cllr John Ferrett, Labour leader, said: ‘always enjoy the Lib Dems talking about their two inches’ in reference to a historic row being debated over the Mountbatten Centre swimming pool not being big enough to be used for Olympic training.
And another post by Lib Dem councillor Will Purvis referred to political transparency in Portsmouth being ‘dead’ due to the Tory administration voting against a cross-party committee replacing the ruling one-party cabinet structure – which was retweeted by other Lib Dem members.
Lib Dem Cllr Ben Dowling also put a picture up he took of fellow Lib Dem colleague Lee Hunt sounding off about the Conservatives, of whom he is a former member.
Cllr Ferrett defended his tweets by saying people had a ‘choice’ as to whether they wanted to follow councillors – and said that despite being very active on social media it doesn’t affect his duties.
‘If you are in a sit-down meeting, many of us talk for long periods, sometimes 18 minutes at a time,’ he said.
‘Twitter can have its downsides, but I think it is a useful means of providing people an insight into what is going on.
‘There are very few people in the public gallery.
‘Political debates can be raucous, just look at Prime Minister’s Questions.
‘Inevitably, people have their political differences.
‘Twitter can also be irrelevant – people can have a laugh and have fun.
‘People should have the freedom to use Twitter however they wish to use it and you have the option of following someone or not.
‘Sometimes it’s very much political debate with other politicians and other political activists.
‘I am a big supporter of tweeting at council meetings and I was one who moved the motion to open up the council to as much scrutiny as possible.’
But Ukip councillor Julie Swan, who was elected onto the council last May, believes political tweeting can be confusing when it does not provide context.
‘Council meetings are open to the public as it is, plus they are already recorded, and people have the opportunity to come down and listen,’ she said.
‘Tweeting during meetings is not something I would do. If you are in a council meeting, you should be listening and engaging in the meeting rather than tweeting about something that someone has just said which doesn’t make sense to the public without context.’
Council leader Cllr Donna Jones said she does not normally tweet during debates, but raised questions as to who controls councillors’ accounts.
‘As leader, you are in the hot seat all the time so I have to be ready to react,’ she said. ‘But Twitter is an important platform for politicians to communicate with people, as not all members of the public get to meetings, in fact very few that actually do.
‘I have got no objections to councillors tweeting during meetings, but I did find it embarrassing for Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson at the last full council meeting as a notification came up on my phone that a tweet was sent in his name as he was stood up talking.
‘I looked around and there was Cllr Ben Dowling sat there running his Twitter account.
‘So it’s amazing one of the leaders of the central parties in Portsmouth doesn’t control his own Twitter account.’
Last year Cllr Jones caused controversy by referring to Cllr Vernon-Jackson in a tweet as Cllr Vermin-Jackson, although she claimed she was the victim of an auto-correct function.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson, Lib Dem group leader, admitted Cllr Dowling sends some tweets on his behalf, but they are always given his backing.
And he said the level of abuse on Twitter was unacceptable and many online posts were trivial and only relevant to other councillors and political activists.
‘Most of the councillors are just talking to each other through Twitter, and to the people who are really interested in city politics,’ he said.
‘They are talking to a similar group of people. Normally, I get told off for tweeting during council meetings, and I should be tweeting about real life.
‘As people involved in politics, we can get obsessed with the miniscule things going on in council meetings.’
Local government secretary Eric Pickles issued a guide in 2013 declaring there can be ‘social media reporting of meetings’ and gave permission for bloggers, tweeters, Facebook and YouTube users as well as individuals with websites to report meetings.
He also underlined the right of journalists and citizens to film council meetings.
John O’Connell of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: ‘It’s good councils now must allow live tweeting and blogging from meetings. That will help people hold their politicians to account. But politicians make important decisions that affect local taxpayers, so they have to pay full attention to debates and refrain from scoring cheap political points through social media.’
Portsmouth City Council leader Tory Donna Jones (@DonnaPCC): Lib Dems just voted to spend £178k in year 1 and £300k in year 2 on a “shadow committee system” at Portsmouth. Waste of money and means extra cuts!!
Lib Dem Ben Dowling (@btldowling): ‘Very clear message from Southsea Cllr @LeeHunt6 “You can’t trust the Conservatives” #Portsmouth’
Labour’s John Ferrett (@John_Ferrett): ‘Always enjoy the #libdems talking about their 2 inches’
Lib Dem Gerald Vernon-Jackson (@geraldvjuk): ‘Really pleased that Portsmouth Council will now look at cross party decision making at no extra cost to council tax payers. Lab and Con opposed.’
Lib Dem Will Purvis (@wapurvis): ‘New ‘transparent’ politics in #Portsmouth dead as #Conservatives scrap scrutiny and U-turn on cross-party committees!’
View from Fareham
THE leader of Fareham Borough Council believes it is ‘inappropriate’ for members to tweet at meetings.
And Cllr Sean Woodward admitted he would tell colleagues off for using their phone to send out messages online while in any of his meetings.
‘The transparency issue was about opening up meetings so the public could video, record and tweet about them,’ he said.
‘That was the issue. But personally, I would prefer councillors to concentrate on a meeting, rather than tweet.
‘I don’t think it is appropriate.
‘It’s fine for them to say something on Twitter after it is finished, but I wouldn’t expect them to sit there tweeting.
‘If they are, then they’re not taking part in the meeting.
‘If it was one of my colleagues, I would say something in private to them afterwards about not doing it.’
View from the gallery - political reporter Miles O’Leary
AS someone who goes to report on council meetings, one of my duties is to tweet about the debate and provide readers with an insight into how councillors conduct themselves.
But I would struggle to keep up with what’s going on and miss out on important issues if I was constantly glued to my phone and not paying attention.
I have often found councillors use meetings – especially the full council ones where they all come together – as an opportunity to throw mud at each other online rather than address the matters at hand.
At the latest meeting of the full council, I spotted at least five councillors with their iPads out - ultimately either checking and writing on Twitter or browsing the web.
I welcome the fact that under the new council administration meetings have explicitly been opened up, adopting new government guidance to allow members of the public to broadcast what is happening live.
But I think there are serious questions as to whether everyone present is using their time effectively.
It’s particularly concerning given councillors’ allowances are funded by the taxpayer, and at a time when the council is having to make sever cuts, members need to ensure every penny counts.
Recent full council meetings have rumbled on for up to eight hours - begging the question whether matters could be wrapped up much quicker than that and people’s time would be better spent if Twitter wasn’t involved.
To read The News’ view on this issue click here.