York council stands accused of unacceptable censorship after the Lord Mayor ‘shut down’ a resident, had her ejected from the council chamber – and the whole episode was edited out of the webcast.
Last Thursday (March 24) a full council meeting was held in the Guildhall. Resident and local governance expert Gwen Swinburn had registered to speak about the public interest report by Mazars LLP, the council’s external auditor.
This report was highly critical of the way some council officials were paid thousands of pounds in addition to their normal salaries to run the authority’s trading company.
During her address Ms Swinburn was repeatedly interrupted by the council meeting’s chair, Lord Mayor Cllr Sonja Crisp, until this happened:
We can only see this because Minster FM news editor David Dunning captured some of the live feed.
Although Ms Swinburn went and sat down quietly, officials insisted she be ejected from the chamber in accordance with the Lord Mayor’s request and the meeting was halted until she left.
The council has pledged to put the full video of all its major council meetings on YouTube.
But when it appeared something was missing – most of Ms Swinburn’s speech, the Lord Mayor’s interruptions and decision to prevent her from speaking, and her ejection from the chamber.
This is all that was left of Ms Swinburn’s appearance after the editing was carried out.
Independent York councillor Mark Warters was furious about what happened. He wrote immediately to deputy council leader Keith Aspden asking him “to deal with the fallout from the disgraceful behaviour of the Lord Mayor at last Thursday’s Full Council Meeting”.
Subsequent to that the Lord Mayor in what I can only describe as a gross abuse of power requested that Gwen Swinburn be escorted from the chamber.
Cllr Warters has asked for the edited webcast to be reinstated in full.
Echoing his concerns, Conservative Cllr Paul Doughty wrote to the interim chief executive of the city council, Steve Stewart, asking for “an explanation for the extraordinary decision taken by officers at City of York Council to edit the publicly available record of Full Council on 24th March 2016”.
If we are truly here to serve our residents, if we truly believe in democracy and want to debate the issues that matter we cannot allow ourselves to control what the public sees and what they want to say, to edit the parts we do not like and use sound bites when it suits but quickly forget them when difficult questions are asked.
I would like a clear explanation for why this action was taken including details of who authorised the edit, the legal basis upon which this decision was taken, the reinstatement of the full video webcast and an assurance that this will never again be allowed to happen in our city.
On Wednesday (March 30) Cllr Doughty had received a “holding response” from the chief executive and he has restated his request.
Typical of York
Ms Swinburn said: “I was trying to say to councillors, ‘don’t be fooled into thinking this isn’t important’. Where a decision was taken, it was taken in self-interest not in the council’s interest.
“I got up to halfway through and I had already been stopped twice with long diatribe interruptions from Cllr Crisp, and then she said, ‘You’ve had your time now’.”
Ms Swinburn said the next Lord Mayor, Cllr Dave Taylor of the Green Party, came and sat with her in protest at her treatment before she had to leave the council chamber.
“It’s just shocking. Nothing I was saying wasn’t true – most of it was taken directly from the auditor’s report.
“It’s so typical of York.”
You can read Ms Swinburn’s full statement to the council here.
A City of York Council spokesperson said that the authority’s webcasting protocol enabled the editing to take place.
YorkMix asked what were the legal reason for editing the video.
The spokesperson said: “I won’t be going into the specific legal details with you at this stage.”
All council webcasting is contracted out to local theatre company Pilot.
We asked who took the decision to edit the video and were told “it would be whoever was at the meeting at the time – legal representatives, democratic service representatives.
“There would be discussions post-meeting with various council representatives too.”
In his reply to Cllr Warters, deputy council leader Keith Aspden said he was unaware of any editing of the webcast. He has asked officials for an explanation.
We have emailed the Lord Mayor with a list of questions but have yet to receive a reply.