Barnet bloggers barred from public meeting

INFLUENTIAL Barnet bloggers are among those barred from Barnet Council’s open meetings despite a direct request from local government secretary Eric Pickles for councils to open their doors to citizen journalists.

Barnet bloggers have been prolific in highlighting the actions of the Conservative-run council. And the relationship has often been heated.

In 2009, Brian Coleman was hauled up in front of the standards sub-committee after branding one blogger an “obsessive, poisonous individual” in an email exchange.

The borough’s bloggers had welcomed calls for openness from Mr Pickles. He said: “More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists. Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny.

“The greater powers and freedoms which we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.”

But Barnet Council is determined to make no such allowances and still refuses to allow bloggers to film or tweet proceedings.

Council leader Lynne Hillian announced before the full council meeting on March 1 that she did not see bloggers as members of the “respectable” media and therefore requests from them for guaranteed access to the meeting would not be considered.

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She added that filming the meeting was “against the council’s constitution” – and those who tried to challenge the ban were stopped from filming by security guards and council employees.

John Dix has been active in the community for 13 years and blogging for two. He was denied access to the public gallery at the meeting by chief executive Nick Walkley despite police agreeing that he could take up one of 17 empty seats.

He said: “It’s just a bit of a storm in a tea cup. It mystifies me how Barnet is behaving over this – what have they got to hide?

“I go to many Barnet meetings and blog about them and I just don’t know what they are so worried about people reporting on.

“Most of the residents who were trying to get in the meeting were elderly, respectable people who just wanted to gain access to a public meeting.”

“Mrs Angry”, a mother from Finchley who writes the blog Broken Barnet, was the only blogger to be allowed into the main meeting. She said: “The public gallery was half empty and they wouldn’t let people in. Bloggers, ex-MPs and heads of local groups couldn’t get through as unaccountable, unidentifiable bouncers overruled police.

“It’s like Barnet is becoming some sort of Orwellian regime. It’s ironic after what is going on in the Middle East that we are sitting in Barnet with unaccountable security guards barring us from the council and secretly filming us.”

Members of the accredited press – including a Ham&High reporter – were ushered into the press area, bypassing the over-flow room.

A Barnet Council spokeswoman said: “Every member of the public who arrived at the building at the start of the meeting had a place in the public gallery, which was full, or an overflow room where extra seats were provided. Filming in council was due to be discussed at yesterday’s general functions committee.”