Unlawful: Auditor’s verdict on council staff using taxpayers cash to sue bloggers

blogger jacqui thompson Pic courtesy: carmarthenplanning.blogspot.com

blogger jacqui thompson
Pic courtesy: carmarthenplanning.blogspot.com

A decision by the Wales Audit Office in the last few days should send shivers down the spines of senior council staff thinking of using taxpayer’s money to silence bloggers.
The audit office have ruled that Carmarthenshire County Council acted illegally by indemnifying its chief executive,Mark James,in a libel action involving local blogger,Jacqui Thompson.
She has been involved in a long running libel case – which is due to go to appeal – over corruption allegations in Carmathenshire Council. Mr Justice Tugenhat ruled that she had run a “unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation” against senior officials through her blog posts. The situation escalated when she was arrested for filming a council meeting on a mobile phone.
She has been ordered to pay £25,000 damages to Mr James and is facing bankruptcy after facing a £230,000 in legal costs run up by the authority in fighting the action. The court ruling was seen as having a chilling effect on the right of bloggers to criticise and comment on local council affairs.
Even Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, expressed concern over this ruling – though it is outside his jurisdiction in devolved Britain to act.
Now Anthony Barnett, the Wales Audit Office auditor has ruled – see BBC report – the indemnity of £23,217 is unlawful. For good measure has says a payment of over £16,000 in lieu of a pension to Mr James is also illegal.
His draft report says “I draw attention to the matters disclosed in note 6.50 to the accounts in relation to (i) remuneration totalling £16,353 paid to the Chief Executive in lieu of employer pension contributions; and (ii) £23,217 of expenditure incurred in granting an indemnity to the Chief Executive to bring a libel counter-claim against a claimant. These transactions are considered to be unlawful.”
Carmarthenshire County Council are furious and say they had taken legal advice that it was perfectly OK to use public money for staff to become involved in suing bloggers.
Its spokesman made it clear in a statement to the BBC: “Regarding the issue of the indemnity to an officer of the council to take action for libel, we would like to make it clear that we consulted the Wales Audit Office prior to the decision being taken in January 2012 and that it has taken almost two years for these concerns to have been expressed,” a spokesman said.
“We have discussed the matter with them on several occasions and in August of 2012 they indicated, in response to questions from a third party, that they agreed that the council had the legal powers to grant the indemnity.
“It is disappointing that they have now expressed a different view so late in the day, and too late for the council to act upon it.”
The consequences of this ruling are two-fold. It must question whether the council should continue to provide an indemnity to Mr James in the current appeal.
It also sends a much wider warning to senior council officials – that they should think more than twice before using public money to pursue people who are critical of them. I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the issues in her blogs, but I do think a public authority should not use public money to crush them. This is a victory for those who support free speech and unfettered debate on matters of public interest.

Defamation Act 2013: A boost for free speech, Part 2: Public Interest and Privilege – Timothy Pinto

This is a second good piece of news for bloggers who follow political scandals, local councils, the NHS and bad practice in public services. You needn’t worry if you don’t get it 100 per cent right.You are going to have new rights protecting your reporting and comments so long as you can justify it is the public interest and produce fair accounts of public events. The great thing is you can report public protest meetings with full protection. Another invaluable piece of legal advice for all those following public affairs.

Inforrm's Blog

Houses of ParliamentIn this second part of four posts by Timothy Pinto of Taylor Wessing, he considers the changes to common law and statutory privilege which will result from the Defamation Act 2013. Part 1 on “Serious Harm, Truth and Honest Opinion” can be found here.

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Politics of the madhouse:Lunatic law to regulate the blogosphere

Lord Justice Leveson: Blog Regulation was outside his remit

Lord Justice Leveson: Blog Regulation was outside his remit Pic courtesy: Leveson Inquiry website

Rushed legislation is bad legislation.  Proposals in the current crime and courts bill  to extend regulation to the blogosphere at the switch of a clause without proper debate or consideration  is daft and dangerous.

I have seen the detailed clauses put down for debate when Parliament returns this month – and frankly the only use for them is to swell the already well lined pockets of m’ learned friends. Taken together they are neither use nor ornament and if they became law all they would do is spread confusion and clog the courts with hours of pointless legal argument.

The aim is to try to bring the completely unregulated blogosphere within the new  regulated press and media. The proposal was neither sought nor demanded by Lord Leveson, whose inquiry concentrated on big media. Leveson probably didn’t understand the blogosphere and as far as I know isn’t on Twitter.

The amendments tabled in the House of Lords just before the recess on March 27 can be seen here (http://bit.ly/14AyRHO). It looks as though it is in  response to a letter from a number of bloggers from Paul Staines and Tim Montgomerie to Laurance Durnan and Sunny Hundal  to the Guardian  who objected to even more drastic measures (see http://bit.ly/XTs84y ).

But I still have enormous problems with the amendment. It is still not clear whether this blog should be covered by the law or not. On the one hand  it is primarily a news blog ( should be covered then) but written by one person ( shouldn’t be covered then). It involves some editorial control – either pre moderation or post moderation of comments – depending on rules set  by WordPress.com not me.(could be covered or not depending on your view.)

I can just imagine the arguments in a courtroom between lawyers on this blog and others. What will be the definition of incidental news ( how many stories do have to have to qualify) – what happens when a subject -like the current police investigations into paedophiles becomes news (do sites that write this up become news when it is the headlines, and not news when it is not).

When is a blog like  Broken Barnet  by Mrs Angry considered a community asset (exempt) or a news blog (not exempt). What is the definition of a small blog – one of the weird Lords amendments ( is it the number of hits, unique visitors, blog followers? Or as one person has suggested is it registered for VAT and does it pass the threshold for VAT?)

The main proponents for these new controls appear to be the Media Reform Coalition who have written this blog ( see http://bit.ly/13Mgr7S ) . They appear to be a self-appointed group of academics and lawyers. Their  argument is that I  should be registered to save exemplary damages being awarded against me by the rich and powerful and to avoid paying my opponents’ legal costs.

Since this blog appeared the Media Reform Coalition have today (Thursday) launched an on line consultation and more detailed explanation of the proposed changes. Those interested can find this at http://fb.me/2z6xrP6qz 

Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy says this is not the case and there will be  three weeks of consultation to try and get un registered bloggers the same privileges as those who are registered and define properly what is a small blog. (See http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/03/27/bloggers-to-get-three-week-consultation-on-regulation).

It remains to be seen how successgful this will be.

In the meantime  I am not swayed by the exemplary damages argument – it costs £1600 alone just to take out a libel writ at that level – so it would be beyond most people’s means. And also I suspect that many small bloggers caught in this trap wouldn’t employ lawyers – they would be become litigants in person – and clog up the courts just as the famous pair who took on Mcdonalds.  And they won’t have the money to pay the other sides legal costs anyway – so whoever took them would end up out-of-pocket themselves. The case would also become a cause celebre.

My gut feeling is to rely on the new Defamation Act – which will restrict libel cases against anyone – as the  rich and powerful will have to show the story has caused major damage – not just any damage.  I think all sides would benefit if any proposals to include blogs were dropped from the remit of the regulator – until at least there is a considered debate. As I said making law on the hoof is a disaster. You have only to look at the Dangerous Dogs Act to see this. This is the equivalent of the Dangerous Bloggers Act!

Child abuse investigation propels site to over 200,000 hits in 3 years

Just a service note to say the number of hits on this website has exceeded 200,000 since it was launched just over three years ago.

The recent momentum has been propelled by the investigation into child abuse at the Elm Guest House in Richmond,London where a team of reporters based at Exaro News (http://www.exaronews.com) have been starting to unravel this enormous historic scandal. Most of the stories into the child abuse have attracted between 1500 and 3000 hits. The only higher ones include some of the investigations into the privatisation of the London fire brigade, Brian Coleman, the demise of NHS Direct, and the very disturbing report into strip searching of women and bad treatment of gays at Gatwick Airport.

Thanks to all the people reading this non-profit making site and for supporting genuine investigative journalism.

Should ministers be able to snoop on your calls and e-mails? Enter a competition to have your say.

computer snoopers? pic courtesy itelegraph.co.uk

Update: Since this was published the deadline has been extended to December 14, so you still have a chance to enter.

Can you out Craig  John Craig on Sky News? Are you more outrageous than blogger  Guido Fawkes?  Can you be more angry than Richard Littlejohn or Peter Hitchens? If you are a budding journo aged 14 to 18 and take an interest in politics, there is rather good competition you can enter. The subject this year is privacy and the internet – and whether  the government should be able to access stuff on your mobile phone calls, trace your e-mails and see which websites you have visited. The competition is run by the Parliamentary Press Gallery – the hacks who write for the press, write blogs and broadcast on radio and TV from Parliament. You must have a view on this – so why not write an article or a blog or put together a radio or TV report.

You can get all the details at http://www.writenow.org.uk  . But hurry you only have until November 10 to get an entry in. If you win you will get a day in the House of Political Intrigue and be able to meet some of the more colourful characters in the media and MPs.

We filmed bloggers and Barnet residents for Tory council-Private security chief

 Update: Barnet bloggers have called for full independent public inquiry into Barnet Council’s handling of the MetPro contract.

They say:

The only way that trust can be restored in Barnet Council, following the MetPro debacle, is to hold a full public inquiry. We the undersigned call on Nick Walkley, CEO of Barnet Council, and Lynne Hillan, Council Leader, to immediately engage an independent investigator, enjoying the confidence of Barnet residents, to look into the relationship between MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response and Barnet Council. We demand to know what Barnet Council asked MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response to do and what Barnet Council has done with any information about residents it has had access to as a result of MetPro’s work. Contact for more details: Vicki Morris vickimorris@btinternet.com

Did Barnet authorise the filming?

 

Or did the private security firm do it?

A former director of  a security company now bust with £400,000 debts – has  admitted that he equipped his security staff with security cameras so he could film protestors,bloggers and  residents – who came to Tory Barnet council’s meeting which approved cuts.

A scoop by Georgia Graham – a reporter on the Hampstead and Highgate Express  –  following up exclusives on this site and by Broken Barnet -(See this link to Broken Barnet for the latest story http://bitly.com/i13ngn )  got an admission from Kevin Sharkey, one of  the directors of MetPro. See http://bit.ly/frWGO1

In an interview today with me, he said: “Our staff normally wear clothing  with cameras so we can document what is happening for both sides. It is normal practice at football matches and where there are large crowds.” He said he was doing the filming for people’s safety and for his own staff’s safety to make sure nobody was hurt.

” In this day and age nobody would act without authorisation and we were asked to do this by Barnet Council. We were preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. In the event nothing happened unlike at Camden and Haringey councils.”

 He  said the main reason why people could not watch the meeting was because they had arrived late and said that he knew people who were there were up ” tricks ” to get other people into the chamber which would have breached fire regulations.

” We know what tricks people got up to like saying they were going to the toilet to free a place and then coming back.”

He also amounted an extraordinary defence of the ” dire state ” of his company – saying he was an employee not a director – despite being registered at Companies House as a director.

 He put the blame for the collapse on his partner Luigi Mansi saying ” he  was running the company and he is going to have pay back a lot of money for a long time.”

 ” Me, I haven’t got a penny to my name and I am living in rented accommodation. I am part of the community myself. I was working 130 hours a week to keep the company going but it owed a lot of money in tax.”

Barnet Council yesterday insisted that it had not ordered MetPro to do this. In a statement the authority said:

“MetPro has gone into liquidation and the council has terminated its contract.  At no point has the council ever authorised security staff carrying lapel cameras. 
 “Unlike some other London boroughs, the setting of the budget in Barnet at cabinet and council was held with the public present and at the advertised time and place. Every resident who arrived at Hendon Town Hall by the start of the meeting had a place in either the public gallery or the overflow room.”

Whoever is right this is a damning indictment of local democracy at Barnet Council. They have employed people who are equipped to film people at a public meeting. They have banned bloggers and residents from filming, tweeting or recording their own council against the  advice of Eric Pickles, the communities secretary. They also have paid over £275,000 to a private security firm that has ended almost owing all that in unpaid tax. They either don’t know what they are doing or don’t care.