Thursday 21 February 2013

Catch 22 meets 1984: Day 6 of the Caebrwyn libel trial

Temple Church


here is the link to yesterday's Radio 4 Today programme interview with Jacqui Thompson

Mrs Angry was unable to attend the trial yesterday morning, unfortunately, and arrived late, in a less than happy mood, but the by now familiar ritual of the courtroom was carrying on regardless, and it was comforting to sink back into the rhythm of the legal arguments, the ticking of the clock, the sense of concentration on abstract concepts, minutely analysed detail, caught between the extremes of obscurity, and clarity, argument and counter argument.

In her absence,   had been reporting the earlier proceedings, (in between indulging in unseemly thoughts about the strange allure of legal costume). 

Mr Speker had presented his closing arguments on behalf of his client, Carmarthenshire Chief Executive Mark James. 

It rather sounds as if there was little new in the way of argument that was out to support Mr James' counter claim, although what was not said was said at some length, but a couple of tweets caught Mrs Angry's eye, such as:

Judge indicating Press & individuals basically have same responsibility now when it comes to journalism content!


Prosecution saying council can't be held liable for not making a decision on whether to allow filming, no damages can be claimed.

By midday Ms Michalos proceeded to start the closing argument for Jacqui Thompson. Barnet Rebel tweeted:

Judge asking for clarification as to why was Ms Thompson arrested!

Which of course is a very good question, m'lud. And then:

It is being pointed out the complete imbalance between the two sides, a housewife against a large council.

Quite. But then:

Other people felt they were being treated unfairly in the planning department too. Judge: but was this necessarily corruption?
Fair question. And it could be reasonably argued that the question of concerns regarding the planning department had to be raised, and in fact earlier in the trial we had heard that local MP Jonathan Edwards had asked for an investigation into this very issue, but unfortunately this was something that Mr Mark James could not recall.

By lunchtime Mrs Angry had arrived, and listened to Ms Michalos' continuing arguments.

Jacqui Thompson: 'obviously a highly intelligent person, and very literate' - Judge Tugendhat

Everything Mrs Thompson does, she claimed, is categorised by the council as vindictive, including making allegations which have a genuine basis, and even incidents in which she was not involved, such as the aborted visit to the housing officer by her husband, and the so called 'sit in' by her husband and brother in law at a council office.

There was no substantive evidence that any council officers other than Mr James and Mr Bowen had felt 'intimidated' or 'frightened'. And it was not possible to say that the council was not worthy of criticism. 

The action regarding Mr Bowen was settled due to the cost of continuing a challenge, which did not detract from the apology made.

Ms Michalos referred now to the mysterious document, stamped by the Chief Executive's department, and the resources department, which had made Mrs Thompson believe that Mr Bowen's legal costs had been covered by the council, which although it denied any payment to Mr Bowen was unable to explain what exactly it was, or what it represented.

Judge Tugendhat asked what is left unexplained about it: why is it still on her blog? Couldn't it have been sent 'by mistake'?

Ms Michalos suggested that it was reasonable for a lay person to feel suspicious about it. And the council had never asked her to take it down.

Such concerns raised by Mrs Thompson  were not part of a campaign, they should be seen as 'discrete issues'. It was a question, ultimately, of were her actions to be viewed as harassment, or as sanctioned by the right to freedom of expression? Mark James had claimed that the whole website is 'offensive'. That doesn't make it harassment, she suggested.

Only five out of 732 blogposts had been the subject of the action, and none had had any warning from the council. Criticism of the council was not the same as criticism of Mark James.

The point was raised about Mrs Thompson's claims about the council's limo, which she seemed to imply was for his use, at a cost of £66,000 a year, whereas the car, with its two part time chauffeurs, cost half of that, was used by the Chair, and only sometimes Mr James.  The judge pointed out that the claim was untrue, and that he could not live in 'an Alice in Wonderland World. 

He observed, however, that Mrs Thompson produced 'a very articulate blog', that she was 'obviously a highly intelligent person and very literate', and he agreed that he would go through the whole blog and find on the whole content.

Lastly we were asked to consider the matter of  the 'Pinocchio' allegations. 

This referred to the matter of the new theatre which was to be renamed by public vote, but for some reason the council had  overruled the result, and decided the name which came second would be used, rather than the choice of residents. 

Mrs Thompson had joked that she hoped Mr James would not behave similarly in his duties as Returning Officer, and, worse still, had mischievously suggested that 'Pinocchio' might be a suitable performance for the new venue.

Ms Michalos explained to the judge that this was an example of 'sarcasm' which, according to precedent from the McCracken case, could be said to 'help protect the freedom of speech' and encourage 'robust debate'. 

The Pinocchio reference falls within the scope of this landmark case, and is what she referred to as 'an obvious joke'.

Mrs Angry was glad of this explanation, in fact, as it might have been thought that Mr James was being seriously compared to a mendaciously inclined large wooden puppet with an extendable nose, and this could be said to be an extremely defamatory and highly inaccurate description of any senior local government officer. 

Clearly 'sarcasm', joking, satire and indeed lampooning of any kind is something Mrs Angry completely eschews within the scope of her own blog. 

Mr Mark James.

Ms Michalos concluded her case, having asked for damages for the alleged libel of Mrs Thompson by Mr James, and invited his Lordship to dismiss Mr James's counter claim. Judge Tugendhat adjourned the hearing, and reserved judgement on the case to a future date.


Tuesday's session in court had ended early, and adjourned at lunchtime, so Mrs Angry found herself with an unexpectedly free afternoon, and decided to enjoy the cool early spring sunshine, and take a look around the area surrounding the High Court, especially the Temple district which lies between the Strand, Fleet Street and the Thames. 

Between here and the river you will find one of the four inns of court: a sub Dickensian world of eighteenth and nineteenth century squares, alleyways and courtyards full of barristers' chambers, their names written on wooden signs by the door, the area bustling with eager young office clerks pushing trolley loads of boxed legal documents between the chambers and the case hearings across the road. 

At the heart of this area is Temple Church, a late twelfth century building founded by the Knights Templars, a number of whose members lie there, surrounded in eternity by an impertinent array of gargoyles, some of whom seemed to Mrs Angry, trying to ignore the coachload of tourists gawping at the church and clutching their copies of the Da Vinci Code, to have oddly familiar faces. 

Perhaps it is true to say that impertinence is an eternally enduring feature of human behaviour, and as we stand in the Temple church, we still recognise and salute the expression of dissent which it represents: the response of the underdog to those in authority over us.

The templars, of course, were part of a secretive, hugely powerful organisation, immensely wealthy, and accountable to no one. 

Until, that is, resentment and suspicion of their order brought about accusations of all sorts of malpractices, and their lands were seized by the king, and in the case of the Temple estate, given to a college of law, which evolved into the Temple Inn. From an abuse of power, then, to the regulation of abuse, and the protection of our fundamental rights in law, by the law.

Over the three years or so of writing this blog, and covering all sorts of stories about the secretive, unaccountable system of local government here in Broken Barnet, the focus of dissent which is reflected here has moved from one of protest - and impertinence - to one of legal challenge. 

Challenge in the courts of actions which we feel to be unjust, or the consequence of malpractice, defence of the right to protest, in the case of the library occupation, or protest at the failure of the local authority to consult the electorate over a £1 billion privatisation scheme: these matters have been or will be decided by legal judgement. 

The wider issues raised by these cases will have implications for communities all over the UK. And of course in the end, the balance of justice lies in the laws which are meant to protect our freedoms, and save us from the exploitation of power.

In the case of Jacqui Thompson the significance is clear: a fundamental principle is at stake. The freedom of expression, the rights of an individual to voice dissent, to challenge unaccountable authority, and, yes, to be impertinent.

A leading article, on Page Two of the Times yesterday, headed 'State versus Citizen' condemned the behaviour of Carmarthenshire County Council in pursuing this case against Mrs Thompson.

The article concludes that whatever the outcome of the case in the High Court, the council has 'acted arrogantly and defensively. It has wielded excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen and has thereby become a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability.'

The article heavily criticises the authority's use of public money to support the counter claim of libel against Mrs Thompson by the Chief Executive. This means, of course, that Jacqui Thompson, as a local taxpayer, is paying for the legal costs of the person whom she alleges to have libelled her. The case is, as her counsel suggested yesterday, one of 'Catch 22 meets 1984'.

Mrs Angry is not certain if Carmarthenshire County Council, with its atavistic fear of the power of a mobile camera phone, is living in 1984, or rather in an early medieval world of angels, demons, and the fear of eternal damnation.

Mrs Angry is certain, however, that Jacqui Thompson is an admirable woman, and one of great courage and powers of endurance, who has displayed remarkable dignity in the face of an intolerable experience this last week. 

Now let us see justice done. 



Anonymous said...

"Now let us see justice done". Hear, hear. :)

Thank you for your reporting of this important case.

Tessa said...

Thank you very much for your most excellent and detailed accounts of the days in court.

Cneifiwr said...

Hear, hear. You have been a superb observer thoughout. Thank you, Mrs A.

Now, having got the gratitude out of the way, I can resume being rude to you once again.

Anonymous said...

The beleagured folk of Carmarthenshire have been riveted to this case. What a courageous woman Jacqui is! We are praying that justice will be done and democracy may, possibly, return to our beautiful county.

towy71 said...

Excellent piece as I've come to expect, many thanks for your tweets and posts about this important matter. "Now let us see justice done".

Mrs Angry said...

She is indeed a most courageous woman, and whatever happens,emerges from this with her dignity, and serving as an example to all of us.

And Cneifiwr: be careful, or I will reveal the horrible truth, that you are not after all a handsome, tongue tied hill farmer from the black mountains, but really a Tory voting supermarket manager from Weston super Mare.

Anonymous said...

Shocked at what I have read. Is is really the uk in 2013?
Great reporting Mrs A, I wonder if anyone would have picked this up were it not for your reporting. And what else is happening up and down this country, without blogs etc we wold never know. let's hope that common sense will at least prevail and the right judgement given

Mrs Angry said...

Thanks Anon: in fact I do not think that many trials have been live tweeted, so this might have been something of a groundbreaking event, and it certainly helped to create a national story from one that was almost completely ignored by the mainstream press at first.