Can you afford not to attend council meetings?

Any student journalists who imagine they are in for a life of swanning around meejah junkets interviewing celebrities are quickly disabused when they are sent to sit through a planning meeting of the local council. It’s strange, but some find listening to discussions about the erection of dwelling houses or the zoning of regional spatial plans a bit, well, dull.

The idea of hanging out with celebs may have more superficial appeal – to some, at least – but reporting the goings-on of councillors is surely more vital. It is the democratic process at work, when even the most callow student journalist can be initiated into the fourth estate.

Sometimes, however, the press benches of council committee rooms are occupied only by journalism students. Why?

Fewer council meetings are covered by the local press these days, partly because of staff cutbacks in newsrooms and partly because local authorities now churn out a stream of news releases, mostly written by ex-hacks who have, as one put it to me, ‘gone over to the dark side”.

But a contributory factor is that at too many council meetings there appears to be nothing to report. At least planning meetings are likely to witness some disagreement, because councillors tend to ditch their party allegiances and argue the toss in more forthright tones when deliberating what should be allowed in their own or somebody else’s back yard.

But what happens when student journalists go to report local democracy in action and find merely a bunch of nodding heads meekly noting reports and approving officers’ recommendations? That’s the reality on all too many authorities these days, particularly those ruled by a ‘cabinet’on which only one political group is represented and all the real debate has already taken place in party meetings behind closed doors.

If a cabinet meeting lasts less than 20 minutes, with no rows and barely a useable quote, it’s not worth attending – right? Wrong. Unless you turn up, you won’t know what you may have missed – picking up a story later is not the same as being there. And there is always a story.

It could be a throwaway sentence in a report, something buried in the minutes, or a statistic that you could turn into real people. You might need a bit of prior knowledge and lateral thinking to spot it, so read the cuttings before you go, use meetings as the beginning rather than the end, and do what all the best journalists do: talk to those who know a bit more than you do.

Use your eyes and ears and go beyond the agenda in front of you. You might hear gossip about somebody’s retirement, you might spot that tea and biscuits are being cut to save money, or you might observe that the authority is not practising what it preaches about recycling all that paper it produces for each meeting.

And if all else fails, you could write a column about how nobody goes to council meetings any more because nothing ever happens.

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