Behind the news: How the pandemic has sparked greater interest in local democracy

'You're on mute, councillor' has been an oft-heard phrase during the pandemic.'You're on mute, councillor' has been an oft-heard phrase during the pandemic.
'You're on mute, councillor' has been an oft-heard phrase during the pandemic.
With elections cancelled, councillors forced to make decisions via video calls, and many civic leaders’ plans dashed, the pandemic has been as tricky a time for our elected representatives as it has been for the rest of us.

Here Local Democracy Reporter James Harrison, who covers Sunderland City Council, South Tyneside Council and Durham County Council, gives an insight into life behind the news – and how the pandemic has seen more people than ever taking an interest in council meetings.

“You’re on mute.”

Reporting on local government through the pandemic, this has been my tagline to 2020.

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Locked out of town halls and civic centres since March by COVID-19, your councillors became the latest tribe forced online and found themselves facing the same problem as the rest of us.

“How many times have you been holding forth in a virtual meeting, only to realise that no one can hear you?”

Not my question, but the one posed by the brains behind the Oxford English Dictionary.

According to their aptly titled ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’ report, use of the word ‘unmute’ alone has surged by about 500% in 2020, as ‘flustered workers across the country scramble for the right button to make themselves heard’.

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Fortunately, jabbing at buttons while wordlessly mouthing into the void was the main obstacle faced by North East local authorities, spare the, er, clangers exposed, dropped, or vocalised elsewhere in the UK.

Instead, representatives contented themselves with whispers about colleagues’ ‘hideous’ furniture and stylish exposed brickwork on display in their video calls.

While the country went through the ringer, I went through the keyhole, spying on the lesser spotted backbencher or great crested cabinet member in their natural habitats.

BC (before COVID), I went to council meetings so you didn’t have to.

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But this year I’ve been able to see more and more democracy fans tuning in to YouTube at the same time I am.

Sure, maybe a Tuesday morning Audit Committee doesn’t generate the same excitement of Planning and Highways Committee or full council, but even Bake Off hits a bun note from time to time.

And despite every malfunctioning microphone or dodgy Zoom background, the people who needed to found a way to keep meeting and getting things done.

Bin were emptied, pot holes filled and grants doled out.

Whisper it, but some things actually worked quite well, and from the comfort of our own homes there’s never been a better time to watch them doing it.

So uncap that bottle of vintage hand sanitiser you’ve been saving, dim the lights and settle in – just don’t forget about the mute button.

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