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“Stop talking!” Why Zoom from hell makes case for face-to-face

“You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver!”

And with that phrase, the Handforth Parish Council meeting from December 2020 passed into internet legend. A recording of the Zoom call went viral, with people across the world billing it “the meeting from hell”, thanks to the sheer anger and vitriol displayed in an East Cheshire planning committee.

The arguments kick off before the meeting has even officially started; muttered swear words, heated protestations regarding points of order, furious instructions to “STOP TALKING!”, and within five minutes the chair and his deputy have been kicked out. The full version is a 90 minute howl of rage, frustration and petty rivalries, with the afore-mentioned Jackie Weaver as clerk of the meeting emerging as the hero we never knew we needed.

By Thursday evening, Twitter was pushing to get Weaver a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Pointless host and author Richard Osman was promising to write her into his next novel. By the next morning the story had been picked up by all the papers and Piers Morgan was talking about it on Good Morning Britain.

Watching the first five or 10 minutes, you can see why; it’s as funny as any scripted comedy. Yet as well as giving the nation a much-needed laugh, it also serves as prime evidence of why we need face to face meetings back as soon as possible.

Would the furious, shouting men on the council (and they were all men) feel able to act like this in an in-person meeting? One would hope not. I covered hundreds of council meetings in my time on local newspapers, and not once did it approach anything like this.

Here in the UK we’ve spent the dark days of winter locked up, only able to meet via screens, at the mercy of our Wi-Fi connections. I’m not making any excuses for the hooligans of Handforth Parish Council, just observing that a diet of digital-only meetings is not doing anyone any good. We can get by on Zoom, but are we thriving? We are not.

The return of in-person events really cannot come soon enough.

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