Friday 4 November 2011

Freedom of Expression: another victory for the Barnet bloggers

Just when you think the London Borough of Barnet has reached the absolute limits of idiocy, whoops, up pops another revelation which extends the reach of corporate absurdity, way beyond anything we have yet seen.

Yesterday one of the Barnet bloggers, Roger Tichborne, received a Freedom of Information response, sent way beyond the statutory time limit, as most of the most 'sensitive' responses tend to be in our authority. This is because, as we have seen, information, in Broken Barnet, is a dangerous substance, and must be handled with care, and sensitive information is usually only released after the most stringent measures have been taken to defuse the potentially inflammatory nature of its contents. Some things slip through, of course.

In this case, a few questions were asked about any monitoring of Barnet blogs. One question had an interesting answer, as you can see:

3. Please supply any other council communications (redacted if necessary) which refer to blogs or bloggers, sent to entities other than private individuals (ie sent to companies, law firms, media firms etc).

Please find attached redacted correspondence between the council and the ICO in regards to one blogger and the use of personal information. The council has redacted any information that could identify individuals within this correspondence.

Several attached documents came with this response. Heavily redacted, the name of the individual blogger is unidentified, although we can guess who it is, and it is not Mr Tichborne. The blogger in question has been, and with him, all of the Barnet bloggers, unknowingly the focus of an outrageous attempt by the London Borough of Barnet to stifle our questions and criticisms of their policies: issues of public concern. The timing of this action by the borough coincides with our investigations into the MetPro security scandal, which caused immense bad publicity for the authority and highlighted a pervasive culture of corporate incompetence.

Ludicrously, in May this year, a complaint was made to the ICO (the Information Commissioner) in regard to one of the Barnet bloggers. Exactly who has made the complaint is unclear. Is it a private complaint from an individual? It would appear not. (* in fact we now understand that this was indeed a council initiative, which makes things even more interesting ... )The name/names are redacted, and under the section 'title' is written the 'Standards and Information Rights Team' ... The address given is the council offices at North London Business Park, and it would appear to refer to more than one individual, or a group, and refers also to others who are aware of the complaint as also being the 'Standards and Information Rights Team'. Keeping up?

In fact this form appears to have been filled in by a complete idiot. Not only does the title have a team name, under the section where they ask the complainant's relationship with the organisation someone has not addressed the question but written:

'The council has responded to various FOI requests from blank who we understand to be the blogger blank who blogs at blank'. What? They mean Mr Mustard, of course, and I have permission to out him as such, but I think it is more amusing to carry on referring to Mr Blank ...

Next: what is the complaint? Now we read:

'In response to FOI requests, the council has disclosed the job descriptions of various posts, including blank and blank blank. The council understands the FOI requester blank is also a blogger blank who blogs at blank. Since disclosing the job descriptions, extracts have been uploaded by blank onto blank blog and blank has identified the individuals in the relevant posts (this information was not provided by the council).

Mrs Angry's comments in red: Senior officers in highly paid posts, and especially the consultants whose payments are hidden from the accounts have quite rightly been brought under active public scrutiny by Barnet's bloggers, and their posts, and the justification for them, subjected to armchair audit, in the way demanded by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

In addition to identifying the individuals sitting in the posts (sic) blank blank has provided links to their personal websites and blogs. Blank has also used blank blog to publish and comment on extracts from their personal websites and blogs.

This is where things start to lose touch with any reality. Personal websites? Mrs Angry is trying to make the connection here ... what are they banging on about? As far as Mrs Angry is aware, in only one of hundreds of posts has Mr Blank referred to any personal website of a senior council officer, and with perfectly valid reasons connected to the content of the blog.


Mrs Angry understands that no officer of the council has made any complaint to the ICO on a personal basis, and that this complaint did not originate with any individual, which is very interesting is it not, citizens, if this is true?

he website reference is, in fact, an attempt to distract from the fact that the blogger Mr Blank has - to use the corporate mantra - with 'relentless efficiency' challenged the number of highly paid senior officers, especially new posts and consultants brought in to push the One Barnet rubbish, at vast expense to residents and tax payers. This has caused the council some unwelcome publicity, but it has raised matters of genuine and important public concern at a time of savage budgetary cutbacks and, of course, a highly questionable determination to outsource a massive number of council services to the private sector.

It is this dedication to armchair auditing by Barnet Bloggers that you may recall drew the admiration of Eric Pickles, earlier this year. Mr Pickles even mentioned Mr Blank by name. As this form of scrutiny is clearly in the public interest, but highly politically embarrassing to the authority, the council, intent on obscuring its interesting activities, has resorted to hiding behind the mysterious complainants, in an attempt to try to smear the reputation of the bloggers, and silence their criticisms with this
complaint to the ICO. Let's continue.

'The council is of the view that in publishing and commenting on these extracts blank is processing personal data and should be registered as a data controller in accordance with the DPA 1998.' Ah, so now the complaint is being openly expressed from the point of view of 'the council' ... Got that: A BLOGGER SHOULD BE REGISTERED AS A DATA CONTROLLER? What?

The complaint then goes on to state: 'It is the council's view' that exemption under a section of the act meant to protect journalism, literature and art should not apply because, oh dear, because 'publication of blank's views on the merits of their personal websites and blogs is not in the public interest'. So now it is not about publishing job descriptions, but about some unspecified allusion to websites, and blogs? When? Where?

What? Never mind the smokescreen of this obscure and deceptive allegation regarding websites, in possibly one single blog post, and which is of no real relevance here anyway, what about the 99.99% of blogging material, and yes, including job descriptions, which clearly are in the public interest?

Let's move on.

On the 7th of June, the ICO replied and announced that it had rejected this complaint, stating clearly that a blog was exempt under Section 36 of the Data Protection Act, and that:

'it is not the function of the DPA to determine what individuals can or cannot say about other individuals on the internet.'

This was not accepted, however, by the mysterious complainant, and was challenged. The complainant, now openly described as aha - 'The Council' - insisted that exemption under Section 36 did not apply and that 'this response is inconsistent with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision in Lindqvist, a case concerning some data regarding fellow parishioners published by a Swedish woman catechist. Sadly for Barnet Council, the ICO was not impressed by this attempt at legal argument and rejected it out of hand, saying that the rights of data protection have to be balanced with the rights and freedoms of the European Convention of Human Rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression.

As we know, the right to freedom of expression is a subject in which the London Borough of Broken Barnet has little expertise. Mrs Angry would like to think that this judgement was therefore gratefully received by the senior management team and the Tory leadership. Mrs Angry is an eternal optimist, as you know.

The ICO informed Barnet Council:

"The balance of privacy versus freedom of expression relies on taking a proportionate approach. Requiring all bloggers to register with this office and comply with parts of the DPA exempted under section 36 would, in our view, have a hugely disproportionate impact on freedom of expression"

What on earth possessed our lunatic council to think that their obsessive need to stifle debate and free speech was something that would be recognised in law, and upheld by the Information Commissioner? It really is further proof, if any were needed, of the extent to which the management and leadership of this authority has marginalised itself, on the far fringes of reason, in its determination to maintain the reckless policies and raving tenets of the One Barnet regime.

And what amuses Mrs Angry most of all is that while this complaint was being processed, another one was being considered, one made by Mrs Angry in relation to the covert and illegal filming of her, and the unlawful retention of the illicit footage, at the infamous budget meeting of March 1st, by the council's unlicensed security company, MetPro. Mrs Angry's complaint was upheld: she has asked the Chief Executive for an apology for this breach of her privacy. She has not received one. Mrs Angry would like to repeat the invitation sent to the London Borough of Broken Barnet in relation to this finding, which you can see here ...

Is it not really quite extraordinary that this complaint was submitted, considered, judged and appealed over a period of months without the individual concerned being notified, or given the right to defend himself? In Mrs Angry's case, her complaint against the authority was delayed by significant lengths of time in order for the authority to answer her allegations. In this case it would appear that the accused blogger has not been included at all in the process, despite the fact that the council has access to unlimited legal support and financial resources in order to pursue its complaint. Were it not for the Freedom of Information Act, whose statutory regulations are routinely breached here in this borough, this case would not have been made known at all, even to the subject of the complaint.

The decision by the Information Commissioner in this case is, of course, is a hugely significant one for all bloggers in the UK, and for the principle of freedom of expression.

It means that those of us who choose to monitor and comment on the policies and actions of our elected representatives have the protection of the law, and will continue, in the name of transparency and accountability, to investigate and write about any issues of concern in the best interests of the wider public. It is even more ironic, therefore that it took a Freedom of Information request to gain access to this decision. One important lesson emerges from this: we cannot take our rights and liberties for granted, and if the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, this could not be more true than here, right now, in the Big Brother state of Broken Barnet.


Mrs Angry said...

DCMD: write your own blog if you want to go on about Underhill AGAIN, Mrs Angry doesn't give a flying you know what about anything to do with football ...boring boring boring

Don't Call Me Dave said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mrs Angry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs Angry said...

for some reason this post has had more hits than any other post on a Sat, and I've just got up and found it has had more hits already on a Sunday than often it has as a total. How very interesting. Right: excuse me must have some toast.

Mrs Angry said...

A joint statement in response to this issue by the Barnet bloggers will be released. In due course, to quote our favourite councillor, when he does not wish to be specific, a rare thing, but not unheard of.

Mrs Angry said...

someone from the London Borough of Broken Barnet is working overtime this afternoon, reading blogs: I do hope we are not paying for you to do this, mysterious reader?

Mrs Angry said...

look: added flashy bits, Mr Mustard ... marvel at Mrs Angry's expertise

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs Angry,

This is such an important blog. I have spent the day - and, as you've probably noticed - much of the past three weeks with #OccupyLSx and the outrageous behaviour of our local Council is not only what is giving rise to the protests but, even more interestingly, the next steps with a local emphasis are beginning to emerge. Watch this space

Mrs Angry said...

hello Jeffrey: yes, I know you have followed #OccupyLSX very closely: in fact Miss Angry was there today to take some photos for an A level project, and has brought back some great shots, some of which perhaps I will upload.

You are right to link what is happening at the protest, and the associated debate, to what is happening here in our own territory.

The terrible state we are in here is entirely part of the same problem - corruption,complacency, cynicism, and a system of governance bending to the will of business rather than the serving the best interests of the wider community.

Perhaps, like the aftermath of the riots, all this at least has provoked some sort of wider acknowledgment that there is a deep rooted problem, and some better understanding of where it is all going wrong. Indeed, I have been asked to give a sermon next Sunday on this very subject, on the steps of St Paul's. (For some of my less attentive readers, and for the benefit of any bearded CoE vicars, don't panic, yes, this is a JOKE.)

troll free said...

I read a tweet earlier today about councillors having to be data controllers, does have anyone have any specific links to this requirement it would be extremely useful for a pet project with an organisation of questionable behavior i am dealing with.
Many thanks in advance and keep up the good work.

Mrs Angry said...

check out the ICO website, troll free: that might give you some idea ...

Photon said...

Christ. Surely, surely, they have something better to do than exercise their pique to exhaustion?

Excellent blog, excellent post. Gopod response from the ICO, too! Keep going, all concerned!