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Liz
We get a local newspaper through the door here every month or so. It’s free, so it’s mostly useless: normally it only contains ads and a few ‘local interest’ pieces (most of which appear to be taken nearly verbatim from some press release or other, and most of which also display significant and detectable bias). This month, however, one of its reproductions of press releases was actually interesting and inspired me to do some further research.

In an initiative launched by Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government Noel Ahern TD on January 19 this year, Fingal County Council (http://www.fingalcoco.ie) has decided to become the first local authority in the Republic of Ireland to webcast council meetings live from the council chamber. These recordings will also be archived online, enabling people to view council meetings after the event.

The webcasting of council meetings is part of an EU project called eParticipate, a programme which, according to http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/4236/330, aims, "to develop convincing market validation of an e-participation platform that focuses on the need for clear, accessible, informative and transparent communication as a foundation for e-participation at local level."

According to Fingal Co. Council, it’s, "an opportunity to demystify the process of local government." Pardon me, I’m sure, but I didn’t realise it was that confusing. Every seven years we vote your political selves onto the council, and for seven years you get along with horse-trading, making (bad) planning decisions, zoning land, accepting or refusing bribes, and regulating the flow of sewage so the rest of us don’t have to. Why will making every (riveting, I’m sure) moment of your meetings available online change anything of that?

Except, perhaps, to make it more likely that one of you will suggest you should re-institute household rates in order to fund a make-up department.

I’m all in favour of greater transparency in government, be it local or national. I also support that dirty word, accountability, to which so many of our legislators seem to be allergic. Something I noticed, though, as I trawled through press releases seeking a reason for this sudden drive to open county council meetings to the eyes of the public: the language used to describe that same public.

I haven’t read many government press releases in my short life. A state of affairs which I believe will soon change, because I want to keep an eye on the buggers, oh yes I do.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government refers to its public as customers three times, and as citizens only twice. The europa.eu.int document speaks about market validation. And while Fingal Co. Council refers to us as ‘Citizens’ with a capital C, they also have no idea how to apostrophise. (Hand me the red marker, stat.)

Why does this concern me? Because seeing the word ‘citizen’ equated to ‘customer’ and ‘public’ to ‘market’ leaves a decidedly suspicious taste in my mouth (if I may mix my metaphors). If ‘involving the citizen in the process of democracy’ is reduced to ‘customer service’, then bad things may result. I don’t think they need spelling out, but I for one don’t want to see my democracy slide towards corporate-dominated oligarchy à la the USA (no offence to USians, you understand, but from here it looks like you might be on a slippery slope).

That the language of definition is one of the things that need to be watched - carefully - to prevent any such tilt is one of the things I’ve learned from seeing Sinn Féin successfully reposition itself in the media as a party of the middle ground in the North.

So ave, Fingal Co. Council, for being willing to display the tip of your iceberg. But please get someone who knows how to use apostrophies to edit your press releases. Please.

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Sources:

The North County Leader, Jan 06 issue
http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/4236/330
http://www.fingalcoco.ie/YourLocalCouncil/PressReleases/HtmlBody,2262,en.aspx (19/01/06: Minister Ahern officially launches Webcasting of Council Meetings at Fingal Co. Council, Fingal Co. Co. press release)
http://www.environ.ie/DOEI/DOEIPub.nsf/6fb57b90102ce64c80256d12003a7a0d/a3b58d71374447e8802570fb005876da?OpenDocument (Minister of State Noel Ahern officially launches Webcasting of Council Meetings by Fingal County Council, Dept Environment, Heritage and Local Govt. press release)
 
 
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