Mrs Angry noted with interest and amusement lots of frantic visits to her blog by council officers after the email sent to her by Mr X , the assistant Director of Communication at Barnet Council. And then this helpful explanation arrived in her inbox:
Dear Ms Gry
Local Government publicity is governed by the “Code of recommended practice on local government publicity”. All local government officers are expected to follow its recommendations.
The Code covers “Any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public”.
In arriving at a policy for moderation on the Council’s Facebook and ideas websites we paid particular attention to the following obligations placed on the council as publisher:
The Code will therefore be relevant across the whole range of local authorities' work. It covers all decisions by a local authority on publicity and most public relations activities, such as paid advertising and leaflet campaigns, and local authority sponsorship of exhibitions and conferences, as well as assistance to others to issue publicity.
Publicity should not attack, nor appear to undermine, generally accepted moral standards.
Publicity should not be, or liable to misrepresentation as being, party political. Whilst it may be appropriate to describe policies put forward by an individual councillor which are relevant to her/his position and responsibilities within the Council, and to put forward her/his justification in defence of them, this should not be done in party political terms, using political slogans, expressly advocating policies of those of a particular political party or directly attacking policies and opinions of other parties, groups or individuals.
In answer to your questions, any comment praising “conservative policies” would have to be removed.
Comments that we felt could be considered racist or offensive were promptly removed. Had anyone repeated those comments we would have felt obliged to ‘defriend’ them’.
It may be tempting to believe that such decisions are taken on a political basis, but like most local government activity, this is a case of officers meeting obligations as defined by legislation.
I hope that deals with your concerns.
Mrs Angry has now sent the following response:
Dear Mr X,
Thank you for taking the trouble to send this reply. Unfortunately, it does not really clarify the issues I raised in my previous email, and I would like you to answer these points as follows:
I note with interest that there has been a statement in the local Times group newspapers by the council, disassociating itself from the accusation of censorship, specifically in this case in relation to the new Ideas Barnet website. I have to tell you that in my view, this denial of censorship is fatuous and insulting to those of us who have put perfectly reasonable suggestions on this site and watched with bemusement as these items disappear, then return, sometimes with comments deleted. This is in parallel to what is happening on the Facebook site, and I am afraid that the only reasonable conclusion that anyone can come to is that this is, in fact, a perfect example of censorship, an obstruction of the right to free speech, and an interference in the democratic process of consultation.
Taking your comments in your last response, referring to the legislation regarding the code on Local Government publicity, I would point out to to you that you are confusing publicity with debate and consultation: there is a fundamental difference. We are not discussing communication 'addressed to the public at large, or to a section of the public', the issue concerns, in regard to Facebook, a Forum for interaction by residents, and in the case of the Ideas site, an opportunity for the public to express their opinions on the content of the forthcoming budget of spending cuts.
The confusion arises, I think, because in fact this council does see both sites as opportunities for publicity : party political publicity supporting the policies of the Conservative adminstration. It fears genuine debate and consultation, and is trying to silence criticism.
This is really why comments and suggestions which are critical of the administration's policies are being withdrawn, and this is unacceptable.
You have no right to withdraw comments or suggestions which are merely critical, if they are not offensive. This is censorship.
You have no right to withdraw critical comments or suggestions on the spurious basis of being party political simply when they are stating a truth, such as reference to the 54% pay rise just given to councillors. It may be a truth that causes embarrassment to the administration, but it is neither party political or offensive to refer to it.
I note that, contrary to your remarks in this reply, there are still many comments on the Facebook site which are definable as offensive, particularly those relating to the Edward Meakins controversy: remarks claiming for example that Barnet 'sucks', is bullying the elderly, even a 'joke' about hitting a wife. Additionally, I would point out, there are at least two separate personal comments, in August, referring to a female Labour councillor, which have been allowed to remain. Why? Would you allow a remark of this nature about a Conservative councillor to remain? I think not.
I must also ask why your committment to the Code of Practice does not prevent a council officer from using his own personal Facebook link to comment on contributions from members of the public without specifying that he is a Barnet employee? Presumably he is obliged to do this as part of his duties, but the council should not be using a personally linked page to monitor a council site, without the risk of being accused of deliberately misleading the public.
I suspect that political pressure is being put on you to control the content of Barnet's sites, and although you have my sympathy, you must know that this is unacceptable to the vast majority of residents in this borough who have the right to expect a free and open opportunity to express the full range of their opinions at a time of enormous significance to us all, both locally and nationally.