Wednesday 20 February 2013

Can I get a witness? Day Five of the Caebrwyn libel trial

the arrest of Jacqui Thompson    pic Alex Murray Smith

Day Five, then. 

Is that all it is? Mrs Angry feels as if she has been in Court 14 since the beginning of time, and it ain't over yet.

Today brought the opportunity for Mr James to call his witnesses to give evidence. He had several witnesses lined up, in fact, but for some reason, not all were called.

First to take the stand today was Mr Martin Davis, the democratic services officer who had been sent to stop Jacqui Thompson, the blogger Caebrwyn, from filming on the first occasion she was alleged to have been engaged in such activity. 

Mrs Angry must stop here, and remind everyone of the dreadful accusation which is laid before Mrs Thompson: that she was using a mobile phone to film a few minutes of a public council meeting, in a public place, and thereby transgressing no law, no standing order, and merely exercising her right as a citizen, endorsed and encouraged by the Secretary of State, Mr Eric Pickles, to scrutinise and report the actions of her elected representatives.

Mrs Angry has sat through five days of this case now, and has tried very hard to report the details of the arguments with honesty, and in an objective way. But really: this is becoming more and more impossible.

Let us continue.

Let us listen to the evidence of Mr Martin Davies, under cross examination by Ms Michalos, acting for Jacqui Thompson.

After taking the oath, he was asked to state his name and age. He had to think momentarily about his age, which he concluded was 53.

He told the court about the alleged 'incident' in the public gallery where Mrs Thompson was accused of filming proceedings with her phone.

Ms Michalos, acting for Mrs Thompson, soon established that the statement submitted to the court had been preceded by an earlier version written by Mr Davies, a version for which no copies were now available, written before he had seen the police and heard the full allegations made by Mrs Thompson.

In Mr Davies' statement, additional information had been submitted, bracketed, and these additions were the subject of questioning.

These apparent discrepencies are crucial in establishing the credibility of Mr Davies' statement. 

Mr Davies says he was told someone might be filming in the public gallery. He was sent to tell her to stop filming. She denied filming. He was sent on the orders of the Chief Executive. He agreed Mrs Thompson could have been tweeting. Your evidence, said Md Michalos, was that 'she was moving between different things'. 

He said that when he went up she was leaning over with the camera over the parapet, which alone, he remarked, is a danger: she could have dropped it.

(Camera, in this context, means a mobile phone with a camera.)

Mr Davies claimed to have put his hand on front of the phone. 

You were in her personal space, suggested Ms Michalos.

No more than any member of the public.,

Ms Michalos suggested he was leaning across, and that he could not do that without leaning against her. He must have had physical contact. No, he said.

You said you could see her clearly typing into twitter ...

You don't have very good eyesight, observed Ms Michalos ... she stated that he had been peering closely at the documents she had asked him to look at. Mr Davies, who wears glasses, agreed: 

I do need an eye test, he said.

And you mentioned two phones?

He explained he had meant changing 'between modes'.

You are reconstructing events, aren't you?


It's not right when you say you were moving between modes.

He said, in reference to twitter, that he had seen 'little faces on the phone'.

Mr Davies demonstrated how he had tried to stop her 'filming', by cupping her hand with his.

You accept you touched her, asked Ms Michalos.


In the statement, he had claimed there had been no physical contact.

That is not what you said, she observed. 

He repeated the hand on hand gesture. Ms Michalos asked him if he was in regard to his statement, aware of Section 9 of the Criminal Justice Act, and the liability to prosecution if his statement was not true.

You signed a statement that was not true, she suggested.

No, no, he said.

He claimed that after covering the phone with his hand, he had carried on 'making light conversation' with Mrs Thompson, until she 'decided to leave'.

He denied holding her phone or touching the screen. He said he could have sat there all day. Nothing else to do, asked Ms Michalos? He admitted that in fact his office was busy. Were you under pressure? No.

Had he indicated to people in the chamber that he was having trouble, with raised hands, and shrugged shoulders?

The meeting, he said, carried on as normal.

(Remember at this point that allegations were made earlier in the week that Mrs Thompson's alleged behaviour was 'disruptive'.)

How many times, asked Ms Michalos, did you hold on to the lady's mobile phone?

Only the once. That was referring to the occasion when I ... he stopped there.

You are not telling the truth in your statement, said Ms Michalos.

You can't really remember the detail, can you?

It was two years ago. Can more or less describe ...

The detail?

Not second by second. 

Next up was another officer, a Mr Ian Llewellyn.

He stated that he could not be '100% certain that Mrs Thompson was filming. He had heard 'playback', but in answer to Ms Michalos he agreed that he could not be certain that it was the proceedings of the meeting in question.

He also testified that the atmosphere in the gallery was 'quiet'.

Another officer Bethan Lovery gave evidence next. She agreed that from where she was sitting, she could see little more than heads, and could not hear conversations. She thought Mr Davis' mannerisms were calm. She could see the back of his head. The sound she claimed to have heard re playback, she had heard noise but was it the meeting? She admitted that it was difficult the events of two years ago.She had nothing to add to her statement.

David Lyn Thomas gave evidence next. He is the retired head of the legal department of  Carmarthenshire County Council.

He was referred to the matter of the mysterious document which Mrs Thompson believes indicates that Carmarthen County Council paid the legal costs of Mr Bowen, the planning officer who was the subject of an earlier libel case. He sent an email stating that he had lost count of the number of times he had denied that had paid who he referred to as 'Eifion's' legal costs. Checks had been made for documents, in financial records, and an investigation by the Audit Commission.

At the meeting where Mrs Thompson was first alleged to be filming, he said the Chief Executive had asked him to get an officer because of a woman filming or recording. That was the suspicion, anyway.  He admitted he just see Mrs Thompson and Mr Davis. Their heads, and 'a bit more, probably'. 

It was difficult to recall. Mr Davis would have ... held his hand out (to cover the phone) ...

In reality, you can't remember, it was suggested. 

In an email, Mr Davis had stated about Mrs Thompson: 'She wasn't being co-operative, and this was tricky' ... what did 'tricky' mean? It was she said, completely different ... to the witness statement ...'

There was now a reference to an article in the Western Mail newspaper which referred to 'high handed tactics' and libel actions. There was local controversy, observed Ms Michalos. Yes, admitted Mr Thomas.

He had felt it necessary to respond, claiming their headline was 'misleading'. She put it to him strongly that his statement to the newspaper was itself misleading, stating as it did that there had not been a change in council policy (in regard to the indemnity for libel actions). Mr Thomas asserted that they had had an indemnity against claims since 2006. 

Turning to the matter of Mr James' response to the blogpost on the Madaxeman blog, the subject of Mrs Thompson's libel action, Mr Thomas admitted he did not know which blog the post was from. 

Ms Michalos listed the issues which Mr James had been asked about by the writer of the blog, Martin Milan, ie whether or not Jacqui Thompson had 'disrupted' the meeting, whether or not filming was prohibited by standing orders, whether the minutes of the meeting were accurate, and if she should have an apology.

Mark James' letter to Mr Milan, which Mr Thomas had approved, did not address these issues.  Did he consider whether his response did so, or was he just assessing the wording?

He had primarily assessed for content. 

At the meeting in June 2011, where Mrs Thompson had been arrested, she had said that she wasn't doing anything wrong, and she was not shouting, was she?

He said she was 'not complying with what the Chair had asked her to do.

You knew she wasn't shouting.

Yes, he admitted.

An example, then that he had not checked the facts.

After the arrest, there was a lot of media interest, lots of enquiries, the new Statesman, the Daily Telegraph ... the letter to Martin Milan was an example of the questions being asked?


The response that was sent to Mr Milan, vetted by Mr Thomas was sent to all 74 of Carmarthenshire County councillors only after being forwarded to Mr Milan, Ms Michalos reminded Mr Thomas. Mr Thomas said he did not know if they had read the post, and he seemed not to feel that he needed their approval before such a response was sent.

Mr Speker commented on Mr Milan's assertion that the council was not 'fit for purpose' and was 'well overdue for sweeping reform'. What effect did this have on his considerations? Mr Thomas thought that it has been 'quite important to put matters in perspective'. 

Last up was Mr Eifion Bowen, the planning officer. He was asked if he had been told that Mr Thompson had returned home rather than visit his house. He agreed that he had.

The court adjourned now, as the next stage will be the closing speeches, beginning tomorrow morning with Mr Speker for Mark James, and Ms Michalos for Jacqui Thompson.

Mrs Angry will not be able to be in court for at least some of this part of the trial, but hopefully there will be a report of the morning's session tweeted by someone else.

It has been very difficult to write about this trial without comment, as Mrs Angry is not naturally inclined to withhold her opinion on any given subject, but it is to be hoped that the reporting of the evidence presented is enough for readers to gain a fair impression of the issues at stake. 

And there are very serious issues at stake: the outcome of this trial may set a precedent in law which would have extremely serious repercussions for every blogger or journalist who seeks to challenge the actions of those in public office, and to raise matters in the public interest.

The right to freedom of expression is one that lies at the core of our democracy, and this right is itself challenged by the arguments laid down in defence of Mr James' action

That Mark James' action is being funded by his employers, and indeed the tax payers of Carmarthenshire in this way is,  as has been agreed in court, a highly controversial matter and one which poses another fundamental question of principle. 

Listening to the evidence of witnesses at times in this trial it would be easy to lose perspective of the incident which began the whole process: a middle aged woman using a mobile phone to film a few minutes of a public council meeting, involving her elected representatives going about their duties on her behalf. 

As a result of this absurdly trivial act, she was arrested, put in handcuffs, her shoes, socks and wedding ring removed, put in a police cell and detained until she agreed not to film any more meetings. 

She had not broken any laws, nor even breached any of the council's standing orders. She has not received an apology for her treatment from the council, nor, as far as we are aware, from the police.

And here she is now, at the mercy of the judicial process, at the High Court in London, awaiting the outcome of a libel action, and a counter claim against her, funded by herself.

But look: the mainstream press have at last woken up to what has been going on in Court 14 these last few days.   

In tomorrow's Times, there is a leading article headed 'State versus citizen' declaring that 'Carmarthenshire council is behaving with arrogance and defensiveness'. 

Mrs Angry suspects that very few people would argue with that statement. 



Anonymous said...

Many thanks again, Mrs Angry, for your reporting on this case.

Patricia B. said...

Can't thank you enough for tweeting from court each and every day, and for you brilliant updates; for those of us who have vested interests in this case, to be kept informed in this way, is eye wateringly satisfying. To have CCC's culture laid bare in the High Court, is in stark contrast to custom and practice here in rural Wales where the shenanigans at County Hall are never questioned.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Mrs Angry, I've followed this case via your blog and just wanted to say thanks for covering it. Tempted to go and film my local council meeting just for the hell of it.
Ex-Barnet resident.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. Diolch yn fawr.

PatPending said...

Thank you for keeping us informed and tempering your reporting, we know it must be a nightmare at not being able to let rip! Well not yet anyway.

Mrs Angry said...

Anonymous no2: go on, do it: you have every right.

Anonymous no3: I've learnt a lot of Welsh this week, nearly fluent now, and Pat Pending, yes, it is hard to keep quiet: always a problem for me ...

Oswestry21 said...

Exemplary reporting of a case which is of concern to everyone trying to shine a light into the dark corners of local government across the UK. Local authorities must become more transparent, devising strategies for opening up to and engaging with citizens.