Tuesday 3 April 2012

Carmarthenshire County Council and press freedom

In recent months Carmarthenshire County Council has responded to press enquiries about its decision to fund the chief executive's libel actions by issuing what is effectively the same statement over and over again, and the authority says that the action against Jacqui Thompson should not be seen as an attempt by the council to stifle debate and free speech.

The only way to gauge the sincerity of that claim is to look at the council's track record, and when actions are contrasted with words, the public and the press have every reason to be worried.

Council bullying of the Carmarthen Journal and its sister papers goes back to the end of 2009, when the chief executive complained to the paper's proprietors about what he regarded as negative reporting of council news (see Western Mail article here). The complaint was backed up with threats that the council would withdraw advertising from the Journal, and the council's own propaganda sheet, now branded Carmarthenshire News, was beefed up to remind recalcitrant editors that the council meant business.

After a brief return to critical reporting in mid-2011 following Jacqui Thompson's arrest for filming a council meeting, it seems that the Journal has gone back to the straight and narrow, and recently letters critical of the council from various people have gone unpublished. Subjects covered included the chief executive's libel indemnity and a row about the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre development.

The end of 2009 was a particularly busy time for the chief executive, as he grappled with Northcliffe Media, owners of the Carmarthen Journal and other local titles; presided over the launch of Carmarthen TV (intended to be the video counterpart of the council's "newspaper"); and dealt with the fallout from the Delyth Jenkins case. In the dying days of 2009 he even managed to blame the local press for upsetting the parents of the abused woman in the same case (see previous post here).

Those who thought that Carmarthen TV had had a quiet funeral a few years ago would have been shocked to hear from Caebrwyn this week that this propaganda vehicle still exists in the shadowy world of the Local Services Board. There it lurks, probably waiting to be unleashed as part of some new multi-media platform that embraces all of the Council's other broadcast-only communications channels.

The council is not afraid to tackle bigger fish in the press pond, either. In 2008 the Western Mail published an editorial comment criticising the council for amending its constitution to allow it to fund libel actions brought by councillors and officers. The offending editorial can be found here.

It is worth reading this piece, especially in the light of what is happening now in the Jacqui Thompson libel case. The comments made by Martin Shipton are sober and avoid sensationalism.

But that was not how the chief executive saw it. The editorial provoked fury in County Hall, and a complaint was made to the paper's editor.

It seems that what particularly upset the council was this argument:

Yet it is difficult to envisage circumstances where the officers concerned would be facing criticism other than in their capacity as employees of the council. And if the circumstances were entirely private, without connection to their job, why should public funds be provided for such litigation anyway?

The mere suggestion was outrageous, according to County Hall. Yet wind the clock forward four years, and the chief executive is embroiled in a libel case triggered by comments he made on the Madaxeman blog published by a man in the North of England. Quite which part of his job description compelled him to do this and attack Jacqui Thompson's family while he was at it, remains a mystery.

And as we have seen from its recent statements, the council itself does not seem to be able to decide whether the chief executive was allegedly libelled in a personal or a professional capacity.

Martin Shipton, the chief executive told senior councillors and officers at the time, was "not known for being friendly to or giving the benefit of the doubt to Councils".

The editorial was not fair or balanced, the chief executive thundered, and he secured an agreement from the editor of the newspaper that it would publish a letter from the council's then senior legal officer. The editor had also agreed to follow the letter with an acknowledgement stating that "the facts of the previous articles were not as they should have been". This concession was "almost unheard of", he boasted.

Sure enough, a letter from Lyn Thomas (now retired) appeared in the paper a few days later. You can read it here. The editor added a brief statement saying that he accepted the facts as stated by the council, and thanked them for clarifying the matter.

Lyn Thomas's letter makes for very interesting reading, and the editor of the Western Mail may now be wondering whether the council was straight with him.

Mr Thomas assures readers of the newspaper that the council's policy was not to provide indemnities to cover the cost of instituting defamation claims, and that policy had not changed, despite the constitutional amendments.

Being a lawyer, however, there is a strong draught blowing through the letter, with many doors left open. "Exceptional circumstances" may cause the council to change this policy, he adds.

And lo and behold, when the council decided to fund an action for defamation against Jacqui Thompson, it did so because of "exceptional circumstances".

The nice thing about council policies in Carmarthenshire, it seems, is that they can be made up and changed as you go along. No need for any consultation, debate or documentation. The same is true of the filming "policy". Pretty much the same can be said of the "exceptional circumstances" bit. You just say that circumstances are exceptional, but then slap on a public interest exemption so that nobody can know what the justification was or what was so exceptional.

Here's a final thought. Martin Shipton finds himself in good company when he is described by the chief executive as "not known for being friendly to or giving the benefit to Councils". Over the years, pretty much anyone who has criticised the way Carmarthenshire County Council has been run has been branded as "hostile to the council". Others have "issues" or "problems" with the council, councils and/or local government in general.

The impression is created of some turbulent underground anarchist minority which is opposed to the concept of local government.

Well, no, Mr James. The issues and problems that so many people have are to do with the way you have been running our council. And we want it back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!