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Port aux Basques council afraid of voice recordings

The Gulf News is at odds with the Port aux Basques Town Council, over the right to record council meetings.

The council has never allowed voice recordings of its public meetings. And when Brodie Thomas, Editor of The Gulf News, wrote a letter recently, requesting permission to do so, he was turned down.

As background, other town councils routinely allow voice recordings. St. John’s City Council meetings are videotaped, and played on the local community channel.

Before writing his letter to the town council, Thomas wrote the Department of Municipal Affairs, as well as retired political scientist, Dr. Peter Boswell, inquiring about council’s rights and obligations. In both cases, he was told that municipal leaders are free to set their own policies in this regard.

“As per the ‘rules of procedure’ for a council, recording of public meetings may or may not be permitted and is at the discretion of each council. This is not a decision of the Department of Municipal Affairs,” was the government reply.

“I stopped doing media interviews after my retirement a couple of years ago,” wrote Dr. Boswell, “but a quick response to your question is that there is no requirement under the Municipalities Act for councils to allow audio recording of their meetings so your town council has no responsibility to do so.  Provided that the council meets the requirements of open meetings and access to information as stipulated under the Act, they are under no obligation to allow audio or video recordings of their meetings. So, while there is nothing in the Act to prevent audio recording, there is nothing in the Act that requires it.”

In other words, The Gulf News is at the mercy of the Port aux Basques Town Council on this one. And the council stubbornly refuses to allow audio recordings.

Council’s behaviour in this matter is ignorant, in both senses of the word – it is ill-informed, and the reasons given are rude and insulting to media.

Those reasons have been reported in The Gulf News, who have covered this story – and written editorials about it – with remarkable restraint. If anything, they’ve been too polite.

Council debated the newspaper’s request at its January 25 meeting. Here is an excerpt from The Gulf News story about that meeting

The mayor also expressed concern about people taking snippets of the recording out of context, or even going so far as to alter them to portray councillors in a bad light.

Councillor Rick Farrell also felt recording council would be a problem because of people taking things out of context.

“I become a sitting duck because of audio if you make a resolution to deny someone a permit,” he said.

Mayor Button said in his calls to other towns, those who said they did allow recording had their own audio recording equipment as well.

Mayor Button said he would not be opposed to allowing recorders if council had its own recording as backup to ensure the audio was not tampered with. He said council had looked at the cost of buying individual microphones and recording equipment in the past, but that the cost was not justified, in his mind.

After the discussion, all councillors agreed to maintain the status quo.

Lest I be accused of taking council’s remarks out of context, the mayor also said this:

Mayor Button stressed that he does not want this to be portrayed as council not wanting people to know what is happening, because that is not the case.

Okay, I will take the mayor at his word on that. But I do think council assumes that, by banning voice recordings, they are somehow controlling what gets written about council. Which, if correct, is profoundly stupid.

For example, Councillor Farrell fears recordings would make him “a sitting duck,” because audio would reveal that he made a certain resolution, apparently unaware that media can still report his role in the resolution. They can even quote him verbatim, if the reporter takes notes quickly enough. You can't stop the media from covering meetings in great detail by banning audio recordings.

While on the topic of stupid, there is the comment about “taking snippets… out of context” and even altering quotes to put councillors in a bad light.

See what I did there? I used ellipsis (…) to remove excess words and tighten up the quote. But I did so without changing the meaning of what was said. Reporters do it all the time (even with video). Apparently, some people believe such devices are trickery, a way to link quotes together to “alter” their meaning.

So, let’s be clear on this: it would be a serious breach of ethics for any reporter to use ellipsis or any other editing device to twist the meaning of a statement. To casually toss out this accusation is a direct attack on the reporter’s integrity. It’s like walking into the bank and saying, ‘I’m not putting my money in this bank because you tellers will steal it.’

Mayor Button indicated that recordings would be fine if council had its own recording equipment as backup, to ensure that audio was not tampered with. Wow. Another insult. Tampering with recordings to distort the truth is one of the lowest things a journalist could do. I’m not saying it never happens. But making such a statement, in an offhand way and without reason, is ignorant.

Oh, and if the town does decide to record its own meetings, they can buy a decent digital audio recorder for $70.

So, I have a suggestion for The Gulf News. They should start recording the meetings anyway, without council’s permission. Get one of those little digital recorders, put it in your shirt pocket, and record everything. Just don’t tell the council. Take it back to the office, transcribe what you need, get the quotes right, and carry on as if you’re normal.

Now, the council might notice how accurately they’re being quoted. But what are they going to do? Sue you for quoting them correctly?

Yes, council will likely threaten legal action for recording them without permission. They will learn, however, that there is no law against it. Yes, it would be nice to receive permission, and most reporters do ask before switching on the recorder, but it is not a legal requirement.

Under Canadian law, it is permissible to record a conversation as long as one party to that conversation is aware it is happening. That one party, of course, would be the person with the microphone.

The intent of the law is to protect against illegal wiretaps, in which no party to the conversation is aware of the recording. That would be an illegal ‘intercept’. If you’d like to read more – a lot more – on this subject, go here:

http://www.legaltree.ca/node/908

The silliest thing about all this? Council is afraid to allow tape recordings, for fear they will be misquoted – by mistake, and even maliciously. They could prevent this by allowing audio recordings, which would ensure accuracy. They are more likely to be misquoted under the current policy, in which reporters scribble notes by hand, while trying to keep up with council proceedings.

Perhaps the council is afraid The Gulf News will attribute something stupid to them. If that’s the case, I’ve got news for them. A dumb remark, spoken at a council meeting, is ‘on the record’ and can be quoted anyway.

My advice, if you don’t want to see an embarrassing quote in the local newspaper?

Refrain from saying stupid things.

I will give the final word on this back to The Gulf News, who have been far more polite on this matter than I. Here is the conclusion to their editorial, published February 14:

On this point, we’ve agreed to disagree with the council.

Council made its decision and we will respect it. We will continue to cover the meetings as we have in the past, with pen and paper. Disagreeing on this one point will not lead to childish fights or personal vendettas. We are all professionals here, and in the end we will all continue to work towards democracy and the public good in our own way.

Read the full story here:  http://tinyurl.com/4ntebhm

Read the editorial here:  http://tinyurl.com/5t98ceb

 

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Recent comments

  • Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp
    February 17, 2013 - 11:46

    I was videoing council meetings in Osoyoos BC Canada and nearby Oliver. Oliver enforced a resolution prohibiting citizen video and Osoyoos put through the same resolution. I would shoot 2 minute clips with a very quick "stop Start" between. Very little was lost and any specific video could be later looked at. What they didn't like was "I was editorializing too much" People could make comments on the videos. They didn't have control of the video either. Example: Staff were looking into the per diem rates. They got comparison from other levels of government. What the citizens wanted to know was: How much a year do we spend. Take a lunch we do. Why so much out of town travel. Stay home. That kind of thing. The resolution prohibited video in any town facility. I had my own resolution to ignore theirs. They really didn't like it when I went into their "open budget" meeting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XuLmtrhl3I I plan on running in the next election (may 14 2013) on a platform of total transparency. http://www.telusplanet.net/public/stonedan I have 1 video promise up on Youtube and will start doing more as soon as I do my press release.

  • noleggio luci roma
    May 23, 2011 - 06:18

    Your blog is awe-inspiring. I have found many new things. Your way of staging is also fascinating. You have elected very incredible topic. I appreciated it. I'll deal first with the insinuation that the media are the big bad wolf-- while some of the media in the province nowday have come down on the sensational side of the equation, they are the main vessel to get information to the public... and whether bad or good information, you need them. One point of query, though. Is a reporter, in covering a council meeting, a "party" to the conversation? I would argue not. But I'm also not a lawyer. I agree with everything else you said. Thanks for sharing this post so much. noleggio luci roma

  • LetsTalkIntegrity
    March 25, 2011 - 19:37

    I find this whole debacle truly laughable, if for no other reason than for council's obvious reluctance of assume accountability for what occurs in their meetings. I'll deal first with the insinuation that the media are the big bad wolf-- while some of the media in the province nowday have come down on the sensational side of the equation, they are the main vessel to get information to the public... and whether bad or good information, you need them. This council and others like them would be well served to work WITH the paper as oppose to trying to keep them at arms length... Maybe that way they would learn the individual integrity of specific reporters and develope a rapour which will serve both them and council well in the long run. That being said, their malicious implications of trickery on the part of the media does not absolve them of their responsibility as councillors and ELECTED officials. That responsibility and accountability is to the people of the municipality they serve. Geoff, while I respect your suggestion to the council, (and would probably do the same thing myself) I would also recommend a different, more public approach; get the town voters involved. I suggest a Gulf News poll of residents-- Do you think town council meetings should be allowed to be recorded by the media? The way I see it, for council to say no because of their irrational 'fear' of the media implies there's something to hide. To allow it means council members have backbone enough to stand behind their decisions and a kind of committment to be informed by facts to lead them to their decisions-- that their votes are in the best interest of the people they represent! I wouldn't let it stop there either... another municipal election will be coming down the road. I'd make it an issue there as well-- all candidates should be asked the question and provide solid reasons behind why they do or do not support the idea. Then let the voters make the decision as to whether they agree with the current reasons given for council's denial of permission. I know if i were a resident-- not a journalist or a council member-- this whole situation would cause me concern....

  • David W
    March 14, 2011 - 12:30

    It's seemed like the stone age since Geoff wrote a blog. What's wrong? You didn't seem to have a problem coming up with topics bashing Danny?

  • John OBrien
    February 18, 2011 - 16:11

    Good post, Geoff. One point of query, though. Is a reporter, in covering a council meeting, a "party" to the conversation? I would argue not. But I'm also not a lawyer. I agree with everything else you said.

  • Ed Hollett
    February 18, 2011 - 14:35

    Ah yes, the old "taken out of context" ploy. Looks like the town council consulted the Standard Book of Lame-assed Excuses for preventing a reporter from using a simple tool of the trade to ensure quotes are accurate. The House of Assembly permits reporters to use audio recordings of the House proceedings. it's been that way for decades. If it's good enough for them, surely the poor councillors in Port aux Basques could come at least that far into the 20th century.

    • W McLean
      February 19, 2011 - 19:06

      That's also the same ploy that ProvGov uses to justify locking down the PDF documents that it occasionally deigns to post to its website. Someone might "take something out of context" if people were allowed to quote from said documents. There are times I think they're just this close to going all North Africa and unplugging from the intertubes altogether.