Friday 15 February 2013

Daft Arrest: the Caebrwyn libel case at the High Court, Day Two

Back to court then, for the second day of the libel case involving Welsh blogger Jacqui Thompson, also known as Caebrwyn, who has taken a libel action against Mark James, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council. Mr James has made a counter claim for libel against Mrs Thompson.

A principle which is commonly observed in the practice of law of this country is that justice must not only be done, it must, wherever possible, be seen to be done. Our law courts, and the trials and hearings which take place there, are generally open to the public, unless dealing with a family matter or subject of similar sensitivity, and in the Royal Courts of Justice, members of the public drift in and out of the court rooms, sitting in the gallery bemused by a short taste of whatever trial is taking place.

Mrs Angry wondered what the bemused visitors in Court 14 today made of the proceedings, as the Welsh blogger gave evidence, almost entirely in response to cross examination by the distractingly named Mr Speker, the barrister acting for Mr James. Now is not the time to comment, perhaps, so let's leave that to the end of the case. It is fair to say that it was a long day, and Mrs Thompson was subjected to an intense and sustained period of  of questioning. Mr James, the Chief Executive whose costs are being paid by Carmarthenshire County Council has not yet given evidence. 

Referring to the earlier libel case, It was put to Jacqui Thompson that there was a difference between 'robust criticism', and and allegations of corruption. She responded that it depended how the term 'corruption' is being used. In the matter of her post suggesting to people 'how to get planning permission in Carmarthenshire, she had not used the word corruption, although she had referred to 'getting friendly with your local councillor' which she thought was a fair reference to the way in which the local planning committee worked, as we heard later.

Mr James' counsel accused Mrs Thompson of running a campaign against Camarthenshire County Council, and said that she had admitted in her blog that her apology to Mr Bowen, the planning officer in the first libel case was false. Jacqqui denied this and said her personal apology to Mr Bowen was sincere but that she still reserved the right to criticise the planning department. This argument was repeated several times.

Mr Speaker then alleged in reference to the  case she was bringing: 'It's about relitigating the Bowen libel action, isn't it?' She denied this.

Apropos of another accusation relating to the disputed costs of the first action, which she denied he said: 'It's never your fault, is it, Mrs Thompson?' This was he told us, something observed by Mr James.

It was suggested that Jacqui Thompson had accused people of perjury. She denied using this word in the context described. In the still unexplained matter of the document which she obtained, stamped by two separate departments of the council which she had believed suggested that Mr Bowen's costs had been paid for by the council, Mr Speaker thought that the evidence of bank statements and an audit investigation had proved this was incorrect. Jacqui Thompson thought that they had rather reached a 'stalemate' over the matter, and that she had received no answer over the significance of the document, as she said a little later, that they couldn't provide an explanation for it. 

A sudden diversion then to a remark made in one of her blog posts to the 'gold plated opulence of the council's presidential suite' in county hall. Was this a reference to Mr James? Was the suite gold plated? No, she replied ... this is a blog ... this is how we write a blog ...

It was noted that reference to the libel case being unlawfully funded was still online

Mr James' counsel put it that Mrs Thompson was 'intent on seeking revenge and pursuin your campaign'. He turned to the matter of a post relating to donations for a swimming pool. Mrs Thompson had suggested that any donation for this should not be stuffed in a brown envelope and left on Mr James' desk. It was put to her that this was a 'thoroughly scurrilous post'. In fact it transpired that a brown envelope stuffed full of cash had once been left on Mr James' desk, although, we heard, it was immediately handed to his assistant, and in fact Mr James became a witness to the prosecution in the subsequent court case. Despite Mrs Thompson's assertion that she had not suggested he was implicated in wrongdoing, his barrister repeated that her post was 'scurrilous and a smear'.

We then moved on to a very interesting issue: the story of Towy Community Church, an evangelical Christian church which became a source of controversy when Carmarthenshire County Council supported it with funding, despite, as Jacqui stated, practices of the church organisation elsewhere which included 'exorcism on teenage girls'.

At a council meeting several members had stood up and declared their own religious faith, making remarks such as that the true book is the bible. 

Mr Speker thought that she had suggested council members or officers were 'loyal followers' of the church. Jacqui denied this, saying she did not know of any who were such followers. When it was put to her that she had made insinuations that Mark James is a member, she denied this too and said she had no idea if he is.

Another suggestion from Mr James counsel: that 'every time ... you see corruption by officers'

No, she retorted. The council should be open to criticism.

Mr Speker informed Mrs Thompson that Mr James and Mrs James are not members of Towy Church. I accept that, said Mrs Thompson.

During an argument over an alleged sum of £66,000 spent on maintaining a council limo, counsel suggested that Mrs Thompson liked to 'pore through the accounts of the council'.

'I have tried to', she replied.

She has an obsession with Mr James? 

Not at all. Jacqui pointed out that he had taken very selectively from her blog posts.

'Do you loathe Mark James? Do you think he is a complete shit?' She had said so in emails.

It transpired that the emails in question had been written on the day after her arrest,( as described in the previous post, for daring to film a few minutes of a public council meeting on her phone, in the course of which she was taken to a police station, and kept in handcuffs for two and a half hours). 

'I was distraught about what had happened, she said. I felt Mr James had instigated my arrest ... it was his actions that made me say that'.

Back now to the planning applications which had been the subject of dispute between Mrs Thompson and the council more than six years ago. Clearly Mr Speker asked why Mrs Thompson had worried about her husband going to see Mr Bowen. She said it was because it might be thought inappropriate. 'You were scared of what he might do', said Mr Speaker. Mrs Thompson denied this. She knew him, and anyway, he came back of his own accord.

Rather extraordinarily, she was now asked if she was aware of an incident around this time in which a planning officer elsewhere had been shot.

She had not, and the relevance of this question was not explained.

Mr James had looked into the Thompsons' allegations of injustice in relation to the planning applications, yet they had made accusations of 'collusion and corruption'. Mrs Thompson replied that the basis for this was that they didn't feel their complaints and concerns had been properly looked into.

Did Jacqui's blog contain anything positive about Mark James? 'I don't know', she said. 'It's a critical blog, critical of the council.' She pointed out that she had not had one word of complaint, and nothing from Mr James until he had taken out his counter claim for libel.

And now we moved on to the interesting use of the term 'slush fund' to describe the new arrangements voted for by Carmarthenshire County Councillors, in an  amendment to the constitution, to provide money for cases such as the one being brought in Mr James' counter claim for libel.

What had she meant by a slush fund for him and 'his cronies'? She meant senior officers, executive members, whoever would be eligible. It was put to her that there was a difference between a theoretical amount of money and an actual fund. Was 'slush fund' an appropriate term to use for a consitutional power?

'If', she replied, 'the constitutional power is an amendment like this'.

Next, the mention in her blog of a new theatre in Llanelli, and a vote which took place for the new name. The name chosen, after such consultation, was in fact the name that came second.

Mrs Thompson had joked in her blog about hoping Mr James takes his role as Returning Officer more seriously, and made references to panto, and Pinocchio. Mr Speaker was not laughing. He said: once again you drag in insinuation, that he is not to be trusted as the Returning Officer ...

Jacqui said that it was more the fact that the council, by staging the vote, was treating the public with contempt. It was not a deliberate insinuation that Mr James 'was a liar and not capable of being a Returning Officer'.

Mr James' barrister said that the role of Returning Officer was very important and one in which one has to have absolute trust.

'You were standing in the next election', he said, to Jacqui. He suggested that this blog post, about a theatre and panto might imply that if she lost she would blame Mr James as Returning Officer. She denied any such insinuation.

After an adjournment for lunch, questioning resumed.

Mark James' counsel wanted to know about Jacqui Thompson's allegations that the Wales Audit Office and the Ombudsman were 'in the pocket' of Camarthenshire County Council. She emphasised that this referred to the council itself, and not Mark James personally. She felt that all these bodies did was to refer issues back to the council, and this left complainants feeling that 'they were up against something of a brick wall'.

Mr Speker was interested in her stating that she was a lone voice of criticism of council policy and actions. He listed several Welsh newspapers and broadcasting concernts. She said she meant that blogs filled the vaccuum left by the inactivity of the local press. One local paper, the South Wales Guardian, had been blacklisted by the council after publishing a 'negative' story.

He stated that as well as all the papers, tv and radio & other mainstream media that he had listed, there were opposition councillors, the Welsh Assembly, Parliament, various outside bodies, and scrutiny committees within Carmarthenshire County Council itself. It was not correct to say that she was the only critical voice.

'In my area', said Jacqui,' it does feel like that. That is what people say'.

We moved on now to the incident in the public gallery in which she claimed a council officer had taken her phone and acted aggressively. There were arguments about whether she had been alone, as she believed, or if four members of the planning department had been present in the gallery as well. She had thought she had been alone. Mr Speaker thought that these officers were there and were witnesses to what happened. He denied the officer who approached her had been aggressive. She asserted that he was. She had guessed his age wrongly. She said it had been dark. There was a lot of questioning from the barrister about the size of the chamber, in relation to the court room. He said he had had it measured, and although it was much wider, it was only 11 metres shorter. It was unclear why this was important.

Had she been filming? No, she had been on twitter. Had she told the police that her phone had been stolen? Not in the sense of a robbery. Had she not started her 'filming campaign against the council? Was she not implying 'leave me alone or I'll make allegations?'

No, she was not.

Around the time of the filming, Mrs Thompson had sent Mr James an email  asking him to join her campaign for 'transparency and democracy'. She said she did not see why there would be a problem with the council embracing transparency. 

Mr James' counsel suggested that 'you knew full well that you were being provocative', and that she was 'seeking confrontation'. No, she said, not at all. She was 'trying to make a bit of a stand. It wasn't 'direct action', it was about transparency.

Jacqui felt that Mr James had 'been instrumental in what had happened to me in my arrest'.

As to the blog post written by Martin Milan, of the 'Mad Axeman' blog, where Mr James had made allegedly libellous remarks about Mrs Thompson: she had not expected him to respond to her email, but hoped he would have the decency. The subsequent comment sleft on the blog were, Mr Speaker told the court, described on twitter as a 'spectacular own goal'. Was there a plan to bait Mr James? No, nothing like that at all.

'You've been looking to sue for libel', suggested Mr Speker, 'because you've become obsessed with libel ... ' He claimed that she had made remarks about Gaddafi: Mrs Thompson pointed out that her local MP had said the council is sometimes run like a dictatorship.

Mr James's counsel then summed up the case he would put to the judge, that her actions had been provocative, that made a knowingly false complaint to the police, that she used the term 'slush fund' to paint a picture that his client was corrupt, a liar and a cheat, that he could not be trusted as a Returning Officer, that the filming was part of her campaign.

'No', said Jacqui. 'I don't agree'. 

Mr Speker sat down.

Time for her own barrister to clarify some of the evidence. She asked Jacqui to explain the background to a case referred to by Mr James' counsel, the allegations that a local councillor had allowed flytipping on his land. This councillor was on the planning committee. A complaint about him allegedly not declaring an interest was the subject of a petition by some local people, but was rejected by the Ombudsman.

Mr Speker had drawn attention to a piece of text on the blog which stated: 'Improving the way we silence our critics'. What was the origin of the phrase? It emerged that the council's slogan was:  'Improving the way we live and work'.

The trial continues tomorrow.

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