As a council officer and as a writer on the internet, I’ve been following the story of Jacqui Thompson and Carmarthenshire council for a while now.
Jacqui Thompson is vice-chair of the Community Council in the Carmarthenshire village of Llanwrda. She also maintains a blog critical of Carmarthenshire council and its officers. She found brief internet fame in 2011 when she was arrested after Carmarthenshire council objected to her filming one of its meetings on her mobile phone, causing a Twitterstorm of protest under the hashtag #daftarrest. And yesterday she was ordered to pay £25,000 in libel damages to a council’s chief executive over what Britain’s most senior libel judge described as an “unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation”.
This is a sad business, but it has some wider implications for both council officers and bloggers.
I’m not surprised that the issue this case centred on was false allegations of corruption. The reason that wasn’t news to me – and won’t be to many others – is that council officers are regularly faced with such allegations, so much so that it almost becomes part of the job. But this isn’t how it should be. In my experience, when an irate member of the public starts talking about ‘brown envelopes’ or ‘you’re all at it’ this is often just a lazy, ad hominem attack on the person of the officer in front of them, whereas what they actually are angry about is the policy or law that stops them getting what they want. And for the officer on the other side of the table the worst thing about it is that it is almost impossible to fight back or refute such allegations, especially because the accuser is usually angry or upset about something, and to suddenly stop the discussion at hand and correct their facts really wouldn’t help.
And yet it can be done. I remember delivering a notice to a householder which contained some news she didn’t want to hear. She stood on her doorstep and made the usual speech about how the council was taking money from developers or something. I was so exasperated that I challenged her to withdraw the remark or call the police, there and then. She was astonished that I took it so personally, and soon backed off in confusion, saying ‘I didn’t mean you, I just meant generally’. I think she was just amazed that I bit back at all – rather as though a piece of furniture had suddenly started speaking. Every now and again I give it a try when somebody starts off with that tedious jocular banter about freemasonry and council committees. The response is often similar. Sure, it happens – the Telegraph has recently exposed some particularly egregious examples - but that doesn’t make it the norm. Very far from it.
So why is this bad? One could argue that the upset and insult to the officer is just part of their job, and they need to grow a pair. A police officer will hear far worse every Saturday night. This may be true. But nonetheless it is bad for us all, and here is why. For all the time campaigners spend ‘seeking out corruption’ they are largely barking up the wrong tree. In every local authority there are plenty of things that are in need of reform or public scrutiny. A tenacious member of the public can genuinely do some good in many cases. But if such tenacious people get sidetracked in some personal crusade against individuals, an opportunity to improve is lost. The case of Jacqui Thompson – clearly a community minded woman who is dedicated and committed to her own brand of public service - may be just such an example. When evidence of corruption is found, there is more than adequate legal process available to do something about it. When it is not found, the explanation so often is not that there is some greater conspiracy hiding it. It is more likely that there is no evidence because there is no corruption.
Those making casual allegations of corruption are perhaps too used to kicking and kicking a public sector that is unable to defend itself. From the top of government downwards it really is just too easy to hammer abuse onto local authorities because, like the bullied child in the playground, they can’t do anything about other than smile weakly and keep walking, knowing that fighting back would only make things worse. The key distinction comes when insults and brickbats aimed - sometimes with good reason – at local authority policies and services cross the line and become an unsubstantiable attack on an individual officer’s professional standards. That should never be acceptable.