Wednesday 20 February 2013

Arrogant, excessive and defensive - The Thunderer (updated)

Update 3.50 p.m. 20 February

Well, that's it. Ms Christina Michalos, Jacqui Thompson's counsel, concluded her closing remarks earlier this afternoon. Judging from the Twitter feed, neither barrister set the case alight today, but then it is worth remembering that the case was being heard by a judge alone with no jury.

Mrs Angry, the Barnet blogger, has done a fantastic job reporting from the courtroom, and I suspect there will have been quite a few Carmarthenshire council staff glued to her tweets.

The last few days have been particularly harrowing for Jacqui Thompson for several reasons, and she now faces a long wait for the verdict.

It would be nice to think that Mark James and the rest of the small group which has been running the council for so long have learned some valuable lessons, but the track record says otherwise. One of the key lessons is that if you don't want people to suspect you of corruption, the solution is openness and transparency.

As Talleyrand observed of the Bourbons, the likelihood is that they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

Update 1.44 p.m. 20 February

Proceedings began this morning with summing up by the barristers. First up was counsel for Mr James. The main point he made seems to be that some of Jacqui Thompson's blogposts were defamatory and based on no evidence. The offending articles were still online, and this was a personalised campaign which no one should have to endure.

Observers in court commented that the delivery of this closing speech was rather dull and lacking in passion.

Next up was counsel for Jacqui Thompson, who pointed out the imbalance between a lone housewife and a large local authority. Most of the criticism had been of the council rather than individuals.The judge intervened a couple of times to ask why parts of the blog alleged corruption when there was no evidence of it. While others had complained about the council's planning department and felt that they had been unfairly treated, the judge wondered whether that amounted to corruption.

The court is due to resume at 2 p.m.

Update 11.50am 20 February

Sure enough the Tories are having a field day with this story. While the court has been in session this morning, Eric Pickles has been on Twitter using the #daftarrest hashtag with the following message:

Unlike Labour-run Welsh Govt, DCLG has allowed people to report, tweet & film council meetings in England

Pickles' lead has been followed by various other Tory groups revelling in the fact that this is "Labour run Wales".


The James v Thompson trial draws to a close today, although the judge is not expected to deliver his verdict for several weeks. He will certainly have a lot to think about.

The last two days saw the council and its senior officers under the spotlight, and the result has been an unmitigated PR disaster for Carmarthenshire County Council. Things could have been even worse. Four council officers were cross examined on Tuesday morning, and at times the council's case descended into farce. At the last minute Mr James's legal team appeared to realise that putting the head of law, Linda Rees Jones, the former chair of council, Ivor Jackson, and the manager of the council's dire press office,  Debbie Williams, into the witness box would have been catastrophic, albeit highly entertaining, and their statements were suddenly withdrawn.

Observers noted that Mr James looked like thunder as his troops floundered.

Mr James told the court on Monday that his letter to the Madaxeman blog which led to the action for defamation had been written under pressure - particularly from elected councillors who had turned to him because they were concerned that the reputation of the council was at stake.

In subsequent questioning, James admitted that he had copied the letter to these concerned councillors only after it had been published.

In view of the press and media coverage the case has received during the last few days, Mr James and those councillors who turned to him may well be wondering what their actions have done for the reputation of the council.

Turning to the press, The Times today carries a leader about the case and a report on proceedings. The leader notes that last year Mr Justice Beaston told a court in Cardiff that public authorities needed to "possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public" in respect of what was said and written about them.

The Times concludes, "Carmarthenshire council was clearly not listening. Indeed, whatever the outcome of the case in the High Court, it should be clear that the council has in both instances [the filming episode and the counter-claim brought by Mr James with tax payers' funds, Ed.] acted arrogantly and defensively. It has wielded excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen and has thereby become a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability."

Elsewhere, there have been reports in other London papers, including the Daily Telegraph. Closer to home, the South Wales Guardian, another victim of the council's bullying, carries a report for the second week running, while the Western Mail concentrates on evidence given by Lyn Thomas, the council's retired former Head of Law.

The Carmarthen Journal did not find space for the case last week, but this week carries a fairly lengthy report on proceedings, together with some background. The article does not appear to be available online.

As usual, the James Journal gives the last word to Mr James himself, with a lengthy quote in which he accuses Jacqui Thompson of hypocrisy. And while the paper splashes the story on its front page with pictures of Mark James and Jacqui Thompson, the topic exercising the Editor in his comment piece this week is what is going to happen to our public toilets.

One final thought. Throughout the last week, a great deal of dirty Welsh linen has been on public display in London WC2. There are certainly plenty of rogue councils in England, and Eric Pickles is never slow to wade in and criticise some of the barmier goings-on. In Wales, on the other hand, the Welsh Government has adopted the policy of the Three Wise Monkeys despite repeated warnings over the years about the actions of the self-styled "best council in Wales". Indeed, it was probably consulted on the decision in to award Mr James a CBE for his services to local government in January 2012.

Carwyn and Co might like to wonder whether it is not just the reputation of Carmarthenshire County Council that is at stake here.


Patricia B. said...

Never before have this authority and it's CE been under such scrutiny. Mouthwateringly satisfying to see the culture that exists here in Wales, exposed for all to witness. There is no such scrutiny here, no questions asked by the Welsh Government, no-one to turn to. Plenty to be embarrassed about. Amazing for me, but clearly not for the arrogant CCC to even think about bringing such a case to the High Court. I don't suppose for one minute lessons will be learned or the culture changed, unfortunately. Shaming!

Anonymous said...

The CE said that he was under pressure from elected Councillors to respond to the blogger's letter. Surely if this was true, those Councillors would have been his witnesses in the High Court and they would have had to swear on oath that this was true? Since when has the CE listened to elected members anyway? If the Welsh Government don't do anything now, regardless of the outcome of this case, they will lose TOTAL CREDIBILITY.

Jack Old Oak said...

Neither the Chief Executive nor any of his office "hangers on" in court with him are fit for purpose. We need to get rid of them all - no matter what the cost!

Anonymous said...

Interesting that E. Bowen had only just begun giving his evidence when the case was adjourned. Maybe he was pulled as well as the other two witnesses??

Patricia B. said...

I note that Mark James has stated when giving his evidence in the High Court, that he is 'a non executive director of the Welsh Assembly' and 'chairs the Corporate Governance Committee'.

Is it any coincidence then that the many requests for Ministers to intervene in dubious decision making and indeed conduct are rejected without explanation.

Jac o' the North, said...

Once this trial concludes the focus must move to the Welsh Government and how it responds.

The Welsh Government will not be allowed to shoot fish in a barrel by going for Mark James and Carmarthenshire council alone. It will need to look at much wider considerations of local government in Wales and full-scale reorganisation.

Among these will be the need for just 7 or 8 new local authorities. Far fewer councillors (for this episode has also show how impotent or redundant most now are). Also, legislation to ensure that chief executives - and other senior officers - remain employees of the council and, through their elected representatives, the people.

Mark James is finished, as may be the whole council; time to learn and move on.

Anonymous said...

During the time that the Chief Executive was appointed at what was then (and still is) a very high (and unwarented?) salary, it was observed that "if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys"
Well, peanuts was certainly NOT paid, but we still got???

p said...

I think it goes without saying that this has been an ordeal for Jacqui, and exceedingly intimidating for her to witness the ridiculously large numbers of witnesses Mark James had ordered, er sorry, requested, to support him in the High Court. What's more it isn't over yet for Jacqui. Let's hope the Judge doesn't take too long in making his judgement.
Jacqui can take solace in the knowledge she has a lot of support out here, and now in London.

Anonymous said...

Jack Old Oak 11.38

I totally agree with you but how do we do it? County Councillors aren't going to do anything in that department.

Anonymous said...

I dont think that anybody should take for granted what the result will be. The judge will come to a conclusion on the evidence and narrow legal points. We should brace ourselves and not get carried away.

What i think is evident is that a few senior councillors have dragged the reputation of Carmarthenshire into the gutter and for what - to stop a middle aged woman from filming a public meeting - the footage of which would probably be viewed by half a dozen local politics anoracks.

Whoever wins the case it will cost the local taxpayer dear.

By progressing this case it has put Carmarthenshire CC in the spotlight as never before - to be called arrogant by the Times of London is no mean feat. Did anybody ever rally think about the welfare of the staff members who wee expected to give evidence - imagine the stress involved.

The Chief Executive has not come out of this with his reputation enhanced I can tell you but he is surely meant to be cotrolled by a council.

I honestly beleive that based on the evidence I have read about there should be political acountability.Should not PHG be calling for the resignation of the executive board - should not the Labour party be sorting this out ??

Anonymous said...

Patricia B 12.17

That is exactly what I thought too when I read that the CE is a non executive director of the Welsh Government etc.

This explains a hell of a lot and no wonder the Welsh Government have not intervened. All Councils should be treated the same though. How can they intervene in some cases and not in others?

Anonymous said...

If Google is the paper the writer is the Publisher is that right ?
Correct or incorrect it makes no diffrence if you cant film you cant film or can you.

Anonymous said...

Well done Jacqui on interview with Radio4. Pity CCC wouldn't answer questions. Par for the course. It goes without saying, they never do. Win or lose in law, you've already won. CCC have embarrassed themselves.

Anonymous said...

Strange how the CE blames the Coucillors when in a corner. Why are they showing him so much loyalty when he would sacrifice all of them to save his own back? The Councillors need to wake up and give him a vote of no confidence, and sharp!

Anonymous said...

I heard J on the radio this morning and i must say she came across as very reasonable and if I may say so a little vulnerable - but in a nice way !

Win or lose she has done for us in carms what labour, Plaid and some of the ndependents could never do and that is shine a light on what goes on in County hall.

How the senior people in the council could live this down is beyond me - to feature in private Eye on multiple occasions is bad enough but to be called Arrogant and defensive by The Times is an utter disaster !!

I thought we had a bloated publicity departement - well where are they now - why couldnt one of them come on the radio thismorning to defend the situation ??



corgisnapper said...

It's high time justice was done - and - seen to be done. For too long this CE and his minions have been allowed to ride roughshod over Carmarthenshire and its community.

The former leader of CCC got her come-uppers, and was forced to resign, although she was succeeded by her then deputy, an even greater blunderer.

Time indeed for all concerned to be made to realise they are public servants, and that the taxpayers who pay their salaries have the right to call the tune to which they, the public servants,must dance. It is surely time for all concerned in this farce to hand in their notices and quit public life for the public good.

Anonymous said...

They won't go of their own accord!
Who is going to do it?