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:
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