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At £112 a pop, have a look at Belfast City Council’s web TV

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

It was never going to rival The X Factor’s ratings or boast of being the biggest show in the country.

Although viewing figures for the first ever webcast of Belfast City Council’s full monthly meeting did surpass all expectations with more than 2,000 people tuning in to watch their public representatives live in action.

But the cut and thrust of local politics — where issues like dog fouling and bin collections regularly top the agenda — has proved no match for the far-fetched plots of Coronation Street or EastEnders and less than 200 people switched on again for this month’s episode of ‘Inside City Hall’.

“There were 160 unique visitors who have watched the January council meeting online,” a spokeswoman confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph.

The online venture is costing ratepayers in the city £18,000 a year — or the equivalent of £112 for each person who tuned in to watch the last meeting.

In December a higher than expected number of people switched on their laptops to watch the full monthly meeting streamed via the City Council’s website. It is thought a high-profile row between unionists and nationalists over Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile’s snub of a 14-year-old Army cadet had piqued the public’s interest. The meeting on December 1 lasted for several hours with much of the debate being taken up discussing the contentious issue which sparked protests from hardline loyalists. A vote was also taken on a controversial Sinn Fein proposal to erect an Irish language Christmas sign in the grounds of City Hall.

Last year members approved a recommendation to adopt a system similar to the one used in Dublin City Council which provides live streaming of high-quality video, providing viewers with on-screen information, including details of the meeting agenda and of individual speakers.

The system is being leased from a specialist company for an estimated annual bill of £18,000. The decision to install cameras led to some division in the council with some members claiming it was a waste of ratepayers' money that could lead to grandstanding in the chamber among councillors who are keen to promote themselves.

Veteran Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers, who was opposed to the broadcasts, claimed it may have been more beneficial if the council had donated £112.50 to each of the viewers who tuned in.

“The figures don’t surprise me at all,” he said. “Personally, I think this venture is a waste of ratepayers’ money. I think the majority of people have better things to do than to watch the streaming of Belfast City Council meetings.

“Some people who did view the stream last month were not at all impressed.

“To me, every pound matters. We are being attacked left, right and centre — and rightly so — by ratepayers for wasting money. We have to deal with numerous requests for donations to various organisations who are doing good work in this city and we have to turn them down. Yet we are still spending money in this way. I have always advocated that decisions need to be regularly reviewed, particularly when ratepayers are complaining about them.

“These things need to be carefully looked at.”

Sinn Fein’s Jim McVeigh, who is in favour of streaming City Hall proceedings, said: “I think it is good to take an initiative that lets people have an insight into how we do our business. It is inevitable that interest would go up and down depending on the issues being discussed — that’s the price of democracy.

“I have no doubt that there would be interest on another issue. I think it’s good to have the facility there so the public can make use of it if they want.”

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