Victory for free speech – as censored York council video is finally reinstated

The Lord Mayor Cllr Sonja Crisp, council leader Cllr Chris Steward and deputy leader Cllr Keith Aspden in a still from the controversial video. Photograph: City of York Council / YouTube
9 Apr 2016 @ 7.43 pm
| News

The missing section from a City of York Council video has been reinstated – in a victory for free speech over censorship.

Footage was cut from the video of the full council meeting on March 24.

After an outcry from councillors and residents the ‘missing scenes’ have been put back online. They show a member of the public, Gwen Swinburn, being prevented from making her statement about a report that was critical of a number of the council’s most senior officers.

Ms Swinburn was interrupted by the chair of the full council meeting, Lord Mayor Cllr Sonja Crisp, and prevented from completing her statement.

She was then ordered to leave the chamber. The meeting was suspended by the Lord Mayor until Ms Swinburn left.

This in itself was a concern to anyone who believes in free speech and democracy. But then the whole episode was edited out of the video of the meeting later uploaded to YouTube.

That decision, undertaken for “legal reasons”, was taken without the knowledge of either the leader of the council, Conservative Chris Steward, or his Lib Dem coalition deputy leader Keith Aspden. And it caused furore.

It took a promise by independent councillor Mark Warters to call an extraordinary council meeting to debate the censorship for the deleted incident to be finally restored and re-uploaded to YouTube.

Underneath Ms Swinburn’s speech is a caption: “The comments made by members of the public in this webcast are the opinions of those individuals and not those of City of York Council.”

The new video of the full meeting can be seen here.

‘Expect a full apology’

Gwen Swinburn is told to stop speaking by the Lord Mayor. Photograph: City of York Council / YouTube
Gwen Swinburn is told to stop speaking by the Lord Mayor. Photograph: City of York Council / YouTube

Gwen Swinburn welcomed the belated decision to restore her to the video of the meeting. But she was unhappy it took so long:

So now two weeks later, the webcast is going up ‘unedited’. How much money, distress and lost reputation has it cost us? I of course will expect a full apology.

She also hopes that the subject of her address, the public interest report into the running of council spin-off company City Of York Trading, will be further investigated.

“When will the public interest report be discussed and action taken against these wrongdoers?”

Deputy leader of the council, Keith Aspden, said:

I am pleased that common sense has prevailed and the full unedited video will now be put on the council website following legal advice.

I had asked officers to look again at the original decision to edit the video after concerns were raised that the council was not being as open as possible.

The joint administration is committed to improving openness and transparency at the council and will be carrying out a governance review in the coming months.

Cllr Mark Warters slammed senior council officers for taking so long to sort this out. The reinstated video was published on April 8 – 15 days after the original meeting.

Cllr Warters said:

I think it’s a disgrace the inertia shown by the officer leadership in this matter.

It is now apparent that nothing meaningful was done to rectify this situation last week and only at the beginning of this week faced with the threat of further damaging exposure at an extraordinary council meeting did officers, pushed by the elected leaders finally ‘get their fingers out’.

He has also asked for full costings of the legal advice sought both in regard to this video, and the original public interest report – which you can read here (PDF).