Lights! Action! Candid cameras switched on at the Town Hall

STEVEN DOWNES found himself watching the first live webcast meeting of the new Croydon Council. He watched it so you didn’t have to…

I nearly missed it, because I was listening to the first in the new series of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. It’s an easy mistake to make. I was a little wary, too. After all, the council website has been “down” almost as much as it’s been “up” in recent weeks, since Crapita got their mitts on it.

Croydon Council's first webcast meeting for nearly eight years, starring Tony Newman

Croydon Council’s first webcast meeting for more than five years, “starring” Tony Newman

But a simple Google search for “Croydon Council meeting webcast” hit the bull’s eye in one shot (someone must have been reading SEO for Dummies), and so neatly I’d sidestepped the council website’s notoriously unhelpful and laborious navigation system.

What a shock I got.

Here was Tony Newman, his designer-stylee 1950s NHS specs perched atop his head, on my screen, talking away… the lips synced with the words, the pictures were not in shaky-vision, and all seemed to make sense. Some Croydon Council IT actually worked. 

So here we are, 15 years after I first worked on some early webcasts (dial-up disasters, since you ask), and Croydon’s council meetings were entering the 21st century. In fact, that’s “re-entering”, because we have been here before. But the previous administration felt uneasy with the degree of public scrutiny which having their debates and discussions webcast afforded the people who pay their councillors’ allowances.

The Tories said that they abandoned the council webcasts on grounds of cost. On that basis, they’d be doing away with voting next.

The Conservatives, who have developed a bit of a reputation for being spendthrifts in Croydon, reckoned five years ago that webcasting council meetings was costing £32,000 per annum and no one was interested. They might have been half right.

Last night’s webcast was produced using the very same equipment which was available when the previous council junked the service, and simply with a new licence with the service provider, was switched back on, all for just £10,000. Or less than the cost of one back bench councillor…

A new "host" for Croydon Council meetings?

A new “host” for Croydon Council meetings?

Last night’s was a cabinet meeting, rather than a full meeting of the council, where Croydon’s wannabe politicians have in recent times tried to perform like the braying mob on PMQs, only with less of the charm.

The tone was different, quite civilised really, and Newman chaired the meeting somewhat like the avuncular host of a television chat show. Not that Graham Norton needs to worry for his job just yet.

Mind you, the idea of a Norton ejector seat, with a lever to be pulled for anyone in the chamber who makes a particularly dull contribution might be something to consider introducing.

Vidhi Mohan wouldn’t last 30 seconds in the Town Hall version of Norton’s red chair. With the former Tory Council Leader Mike Fisher unwell and the Tory deputy leader Tim Pollard scarpering from his public duties early because of something presumably more important, Mohan was thrust into the limelight probably more than he was comfortable with, and definitely more than the viewers would appreciate.

This, after all, is the best that the Conservative Party, the “natural party of government”, can come up with as a candidate to represent them in Croydon North next May. Mohan’s questions on the Play Streets scheme were banal: “I have some issues,” said the councillor for Fairfield ward. “How is it going to work?”

Mohan’s decision to attack the Bishop of Croydon and his probable role in Labour’s council quango of the Fairness Commission was ill-judged, and simply inaccurate, as was pointed out to him bluntly just moments later. This was not the performance of an able politician, even at Town Hall level.

More acute in her observations was Mohan’s colleague, Maria Gatland, belatedly promoted back to the Tory front bench after the local Conservatives got over their shock of discovering that they had a former IRA gun-runner in their midst (and they worried about not putting Andy Coulson through the positive vetting procedure?!).

But Gatland got the tone for a local council meeting just right: conversational, rather than grandstanding, seeking answers to reasonable questions on behalf of the residents she represents.

Not a good look: Maggie Mansell overlooked the dictum that the medium is the message

Not a good look: Maggie Mansell overlooked the dictum that the medium is the message

The webcast works on an automated system, so the camera “direction”, if you can call it that, is determined by whoever holds the floor by pressing the button on their speaker. Were he to have a mind to, Newman could have hours of endless fun over the next four years, switching Steve O’Connell’s microphone on and off again, like some new tech Norman Collier tribute act. Or he could just let O’Connell ramble in his own, virtually incoherent style.

There was a similar problem with Labour veteran Maggie Mansell. I started to make notes of what she was saying, but just could not help myself as I was distracted by the pictures of her wearing a “Don’t Mess With Croydon” T-shirt inelegantly pulled over her more formal business blouse. It wasn’t a good look. Was Mansell planning a night in Tiger Tiger, belligerently taking on anyone who “messed” with her town? It’s the medium that’s the message, Maggie.

Someone, apparently in all seriousness, tweeted that this webcast was “drama and democracy”. They must have been to some very dull plays recently. And to be frank, there’s little democracy involved, either: Labour has a 10-seat majority in the Town Hall now, so what they say goes, unless any of their members decides to strop off and vote for the other side.

Not everything worked: when cabinet member Kathy Bee tried to run a video presentation on the big screen in the chamber about Play Streets for the benefit of the meeting, those trying to watch the webcast were denied any pictures, or sound.

“That explains much more eloquently than this paper what this is all about,” she said, being wrong on one count and worryingly dismissive of the report to council which, I’d always thought, was supposed to make a comprehensive case for a policy.

They’d invited in a … wait for it… member of the public to talk about the Play Streets scheme, Angus Hewlett from the Crystal Palace Transition Town group. “It’s fun, it’s free… well, there are costs,” he said, immediately contradicting himself. In fact, no one making the case for the scheme bothered to tell the meeting – or the webcast viewers – what the costs of the trial are likely to be (£23,000 for 10 streets in this first year).

Someone might want to have a word with the councillors and suggest that if they are going to persist with this new-fangled web thingy, then they really need to consider addressing their presentations to the cameras, and therefore the wider audience, and not just their mates in the council chamber.

Tony Newman seemed to be warming to his role as the Graham Norton of Croydon though. “I hope you enjoyed the first evening of open democracy in Croydon,” he said with a touch of pride as he “signed off”, as the people in television land call it, for the night.

“And don’t forget to tune in again next week for our next gripping episode,” he never said, “when Mike gets handed a bill for his new glasshouse, Phil is given a broom and told to get sweeping, and Sara finds a library card but doesn’t know what to do with it.” At which point, my screen went blank.

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This entry was posted in Bernard Weatherill House, Bishop of Croydon, Capita, Croydon Council, Local media, Maggie Mansell, Mike Fisher, Steve O'Connell, Tim Pollard, Tony Newman, Vidhi Mohan and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lights! Action! Candid cameras switched on at the Town Hall

  1. davidcallam says:

    Chuckles aside it sounds like a step in the right direction. Members will learn to address the camera and to support their proposals with video presentations that can be seen simultaneously by those in the chamber and those watching elsewhere. Being able to watch the source material in the comfort of your own home must surely be preferable to the drafty old press gallery in the Town Hall.

  2. sed30 says:

    Reblogged this on sed30's Blog and commented:
    21st Century comes back to the Town Hall in Croydon

  3. Steven, you missed the best bit – Councillor Phil Thomas looking like one of those nodding dogs people used to have in the backs of their cars – see (the effect works best if you have the sound off)

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