The South Wales Evening Post has picked up on the story that Carmarthenshire County Council, or actually we the taxpayer, will be funding a libel case involving the Chief Executive, Mark James, and award-winning blogger Jacqui Thompson. The article can be found here, although as Jacqui herself has now confirmed and this blog hinted a few days ago, it is not just the defence we are funding, but also a counter-claim for damages against Jacqui.
Perhaps the Evening Post will pop back and ask a few more questions in County Hall.
This has all been rumbling away in the background for many months now, so for anyone who has lost the plot, here is a brief summary of the story so far.
June 2011: Jacqui was arrested after filming a small snatch of a council meeting on her phone. She was taken from Carmarthen to Llanelli and held for several hours, and was there told to sign an undertaking that she would not film council meetings again.
It subsequently turned out that the council had no rules or policy on filming its meetings, but in true Carmarthenshire fashion, it took multiple letters of complaint, queries and Freedom of Information Requests and many months to drag out this admission.
In the ensuing uproar created by the incident, which came to be known as #daftarrest, another blogger who writes under the rather alarming name of madaxeman invited Mr James to comment on the affair and explain his course of action.
To everybody's surprise, not least "Madaxeman" himself, I suspect, Mr James duly obliged, and went even further to make remarks about Jacqui's family. It is those remarks which caused Jacqui to seek legal redress.
It is understood that the Council has engaged the services of one of the most expensive libel lawyers in London to handle both Mr James's defence and his counter-claim, which is based on remarks Jacqui made in her blog.
No doubt, the detail of what Mr James found so objectionable in Jacqui's blog will come out in due course, but anyone who has read her blog will know that, while she is very critical of Mr James in particular, there is nothing in it which would strike the average reader as beyond the sort of criticism which any public figure, such as Mr James, should expect.
Anyone who has followed the story will know that Carmarthenshire is probably unique among UK local authorities in giving itself powers to fund legal actions in this way, and the case raises all sorts of questions about the use of public money, the nature of the administration run by Mr James and freedom of speech. We should also remind ourselves that Mr James is one of the highest, if not the highest, earners in Carmarthenshire.
For the time being, the council should be asking itself some pertinent questions, including:
- Why on earth Mr James decided to make comments on a blog, not least one called Madaxeman, in the first place.
- Did he clear his remarks with senior councillors before making them? It would seem unlikely, given the nature of the remarks.
- Is writing comments on blogs a part of the chief executive's job description? If not, then why the hell are we being made to foot the bill?
- And why on earth has the Executive Board of the council agreed to escalate the entire matter and dramatically increase the cost by hiring some of the most expensive lawyers in the country to fight a housewife and retaliate by bringing a counter-claim?