Tuesday 27 November 2012

A random drive-by character assassination

Carmarthenshire County Council's press office has quite a track record of black propaganda and attacks on anyone foolish enough to disagree with the council in public, but last week's random character assassination of two members of the public who took part in the Jason Mohammad programme on BBC Wales marks a new low.

In the light of new information on the sequence of events last Thursday, it is worth spending a little time looking at how the story was put together, the council's reaction to it and its treatment of Mrs Lesley Williams and Mr Wyn Thomas.

In the couple of weeks leading up to the programme, a BBC researcher contacted various people in Carmarthenshire to ask for their views on the council's treatment of members of the public who go to County Hall to observe meetings. How many people were contacted and how the BBC identified them as possible interviewees is something that would have to be answered by the BBC, but Cneifiwr was on the list and would have been happy to contribute if he had not been working.

The interview began, and Mrs Williams carefully and accurately described the rigmarole which members of the public have to go through in order to exercise a right enshrined in law. Both Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas went on to say how they felt about being treated like criminal suspects and their concerns for the safety of those locked into the public gallery.

Jason Mohammad then read out a statement which had apparently just arrived hot off the presses from County Hall. The statement, which is set out in full at the end of this piece, was carefully worded to try to give the impression that visitors were not locked in, but gave the game away by revealing that they have to use a phone to ask for someone to get them out.

The statement went on to say that the individuals appearing on the programme were part of a campaign being waged against the council which was spreading untruths (weasel speak for lies).

Naturally both Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas were completely taken aback to be confronted live on air with this accusation.

Both asked how the Council had known who would be appearing on the programme, and Jason Mohammad gave the impression that the BBC had earlier passed their names to the council when it was discussing a possible statement. Subsequently the BBC's researcher has categorically denied passing the two names on.
During the discussion immediately before the interview the council spokesperson went on to tell the researcher that the individuals taking part in the programme "had an agenda".

The strange thing about this is that unless the council had somehow illicitly obtained the names of those taking part, it issued what was to all intents and purposes a defamatory statement attacking the motives and credibility of Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas without actually knowing who they were. Their crime, in the eyes of the council, was to agree to talk to the BBC about something the Council would rather not have discussed.

Mrs Williams has crossed swords with the council before when she was a member of a group of Carmarthen residents who opposed certain aspects of the development that is now the St Catherine's Walk precinct in Carmarthen. That was several years ago. The group scored some important victories over the siting of the market hall and keeping St Catherine Street open to traffic. For exercising her right to object to a planning application, she has been subjected to attacks by the chief executive and other council leaders on more than one occasion.

Mr Thomas took part in the programme in a personal capacity, although he is also an elected Plaid Cymru councillor on Carmarthen Town Council. As far as Cneifiwr can ascertain, he has no "previous" with the County Council.

All of which brings us back to the accusation that Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas are part of a campaign to spread lies about the council.

If there is a campaign, the author of this blog is not aware of it. A campaign would suggest that there is a group of people who are organised and working away to achieve some defined objective. There isn't one, or Cneifiwr may well have joined it.

What the council in its paranoia sees as a conspiracy is what elsewhere would be labelled the normal functioning of civil society in a democracy in which people exercise their rights to complain, voice an opinion, sometimes disagree with their local authority, object to planning applications, school closures or other issues of legitimate concern to ordinary people.

As for lies or "untruths", Mrs Williams stated clearly and succinctly the facts about current arrangements for visitors to the public gallery. Doors were locked, including a fire door. Other members of the public have provided the West Wales Fire Authority with evidence that this is so, and the fire officer has asked the council to review the arrangements in the light of his own findings.

Below is a copy of the council's statement together with an additional verbal statement given by the Council to the BBC to be read out on the programme.

Notice how "security" is now suddenly such an important consideration, whereas it clearly wasn't until the filming incident 18+ months ago. Notice also how the Council is proud to boast that very few people actually attend council meetings. And finally notice the word-play in the second paragraph. Until the fire officer intervened, members of the public could indeed let themselves out into the stairwell, but without keys or swipe cards, they could not get any further.

The public gallery is not a lock down situation. But there is a telephone which gallery users, and they are traditionally very few, are asked to use when leaving because it is necessary to have a security check who is in the building at all times for fire regulation and security purposes. All staff using the council buildings are ID swiped in and all members are recorded entering too.
Members of the public have limited access, primarily to the foyer and restaurant to the foyer and have to be accompanied to the roof top gallery and around the building. There is free access to the stairs from the gallery which has a fire exit. The building is listed which means it is not possible to make any significant alterations to the fabric of the building to allow unfettered and secure public access to the gallery.
It is a legal requirement to have fire regulations for such a large building and security is necessary for the same reasons members of the public would not be allowed wander around the BBC unescorted.

The people who are contributing to the programme today are running a campaign against us (the county council) and are spreading untruths.


Cneifiwr said...

Apologies for that white strip which appears across this blog post. I have tried multiple times to get rid of it, without success.

Cneifiwr said...

Further apologies to Anna Mosity who posted the following comment which I deleted while trying to get rid of that white strip:

"As Jason Mohammad made the claim that BBC Wales had told CCC who was on the programme I think it is only right that BBC Wales clarify what really happened.

All useful information for the Ombudsman..."

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Why do CCC have a restaurant? Is it subsidised and if it is why? There is no justification in a council providing a cafe restaurant whilst there are loads of private sector facilities within walking distance of county hall.

Anonymous said...

The councils reaction to mild critiscm reminds me of the Kenneth Williams line in one of the carry on films " Infamy, infamy, theyve all got it in for me!"

They really need to get real - would it be so bad for local people to film meetings. Its the modern way.There is no way that the technology is going away.

I think the argument is that people wil be able to edit what is recorded - but this is exactly what the council are proposing. editing and placing on line at some point in the future !

The trouble is that most of our representatives are of the older generation and do not want to embrace modern technology, Remembers Kevs attitude to Twitter during the election.

Time is on our side - meetings will be streamed, it may take a little time and maybe a change of leader and Chief Executive but it will happen.

Anonymous said...

Are everyone now expecting openness and transparency going to be accused of running a campaign against the Council?

Patricia B said...

Mrs. Williams and Cll. Wyn Thomas have now joined the long list of tax paying members of the public who have been pilloried for daring to criticise CCC.
It would appear there doesn't need to be any semblance of truth in what they say about people, they do it anyway without consequence. There are so many of us now who have been victimised this way. I hope whoever made this statement makes the apology as public as the statement made. It should be mandatory that when such untruths are made by councils the apology should be public, perhaps then they would cease making slurs on decent honest people.

Martin Milan said...

It's almost to the point that anyone who wants openness and transparency is actually REQUIRED to join a campaign...

Anonymous said...

Cardiff City Council broadcast their meetings live on the internet. What have Carmarthen County Council got to hide?