Wednesday 13 February 2013
The Crucible of Democracy: blogger Caebrwyn at the High Court
I started writing this blog almost exactly three years ago, for a specific purpose - to draw attention to the impact on my life of the actions of our local Tory run authority, an authority which then had the longest council housing waiting list in the country, and was placing vulnerable families in sub-standard private accommodation, including disruptive families to whom they had a duty of care but who would, in social housing, be subject to the eviction process that applies to those found to be guilty of anti-social behaviour. One of these families was moved next door to us, and the consequences of the year and a half of terror that was inflicted on us by their behaviour continues to haunt us still, all this time later.
Within ten days of starting this blog, Barnet Council, having refused to take any action, changed its mind, and found alternative accommodation for the family in question. Such, as I discovered, is the power of blogging.
What kept me writing was partly revenge, partly a sense of mischief, but most of all, a newly found and vocational sense of purpose: having lifted the covering of what lies beneath the lid of local democracy, and found the stench of something rotten, and shameful, it seemed somehow important to keep going. So I did: and look: bet you're sorry now, Barnet Council, eh?
And this sort of experience would seem to be a common factor in the germination of new strains of bloggers and digital activists, up and down the country: individuals who have intimate experience of the shadowy world of what passes for democracy in our local communities, and are thereby initiated into the world of citizen journalism - investigative journalism, and armchair auditing.
One of these bloggers is Jacqui Thompson, also known as Caebrwyn, who writes about the very interesting activities of Carmarthenshire County Council.
Today in the High Court, Jacqui Thompson gave evidence in the first day of a case hearing her allegation of libel against Carmarthenshire County Council's Chief Executive Mark James, who has brought a counter claim against Mrs Thompson.
The trial began this morning, in Court 14, an oak panelled, gothic revivalist court room, a curious venue for the hearing of a case centred on such a twenty first century obsession: the virtual world of social media, not to mention those much vaunted principles of localism - the virtues of accountability, transparency and scrutiny: concepts that are, theoretically, at least, so dear to the heart of Eric Pickles, but which his own local politicians find so hard to embrace.
But not the judge: although the right to tweet from court has been established, thanks in part to the efforts of journalist and FOI campaigner Heather Brooke, who was present today, Mrs Angry thought it might be a good thing to verify this, and duly received Judge Tugendhat's permission to tweet from the courtroom.
There was of course a delicious irony in tweeting from the High Court details of a case involving someone who was barred from using her own phone to tweet or film her local council at a public meeting.
'Thompson v James and Another' announced the clerk, adding, somewhat lugubriously, as a sort of legal afterthought, in case there was any doubt what we were doing there: 'For trial'.
Acting for Jacqui Thompson, barrister Christina Michalos addressed the court, giving an outline of the evidence to follow . She referred to the action as being 'at the very crucible of democracy' and 'a matter of public interest'.
She referred briefly to the background of the case, Mrs Thompson being a resident of Carmarthenshire since 1982, an award winning blogger, living in the rural county of Carmarthenshire, with a population of around 185,000, represented by 74 councillors in 58 wards.
Mr Mark James, the Chief Executive of the county council, had been in post since 2002. It was a response from him, sent in reply to a post published by blogger 'Mad Axeman' after Jacqui's arrest for filming part of a council meeting on her phone, which has led to the libel action taken by Mrs Thompson, and the counter claim by Mr James.
In his own action Mr James is being funded by Carmarthenshire County Council, through a form of financial support made possible by an amendment to the council's constitution, one to which Mrs Thompson had objected, and of which now, in the course of this counter claim, as her barrister stated, in an 'Orwellian nightmare' she found herself the victim, paid for by herself as a local taxpayer.
Ms Michalos described her client Jacqui Thompson as someone who has shown real courage and fortitude, who had resolved to 'try to stand up for what I believe is right'.
After Jacqui was arrested in a committee meeting for filming with her phone, the Mad Axeman blog raised certain objections to what had happened, arguing that her actions had not, as alleged, disrupted the meeting, and that filming was not anyway prohibited. He asked if she were not owed an apology.
Mark James chose to reply to this post, stating what was referred to as 'the council's position', and claiming he was 'clarifying' the issue. He is reported as describing Jacqui's filming as 'an attempt to disrupt and undermine'. He referred to 'a campaign of harassment and intimidation of council staff and members for some considerable time'. He implied this was due to planning applications which had been turned down by the authority. He made comments about the contents of her blog using terms such as 'I am told' and 'I am informed', and made allegations about her filming activities in council meetings. Ms Michalos claimed that Mr James attempted to 'portray the claimant as a liar', and that his remarks were 'seriously defamatory'.
Comments on the post, the barrister claimed, were evidence that Mr James' remarks about the claimant were seen as 'blackening her character'.
Alluding to the planning matters which Mr James mentioned, Ms Michalos explained the history of applications made by the claimant and her relatives, during the course of which they became concerned about the way in which the local planning department of their local authority was operating. Mrs Thompson claimed that this department was the subject of considerable local criticism around the time of her first interest in her local authority. Against this background, the claimant and her husband wrote a letter which became the subject of earlier libel proceedings.
Ms Michalos gave examples of the wide range of issues covered by the Caebrwyn blog: the matter of the Wales Audit Office Accounts, local budget cuts, and many other issues of local and public interest. She then turned to the incident which led to the current case: the arrest of her client for the 'offence' of daring to use her phone to film part of a council meeting.
This incident caused outrage not just locally and in the social media but nationally, and in the mainstream press. The barrister read a list of widely respected newspapers and journalists who had reported and criticised the action of the council and police, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC. David Allen Green, in the New Statesman, had labelled their behaviour 'hapless, illiberal and alarming' and said those responsible 'should be ashamed of themselves'. Members of parliament and the Assembly also condemned the treatment she had received.
After adjourning for lunch, it was time for Jacqui Thompson to give evidence.
A softly spoken, middle-aged woman, she spoke hesitantly at first, in response to questions about her own background. She described herself as the mother of four children, and a housewife, living on a small holding in a very rural area, some three miles from the nearest village. She explained the experience of planning applications made with her husband and brother in law and how it had caused them to feel concerned about the way in which such decisions were being made. This concern had at one point led them to contact the police.
After writing a letter about the misgivings which both the complainant and her husband felt about the local planning department, the subsequent proceedings required her to apologise to a particular officer for any personal offence her complaint had had, but she told the court she still maintained her right to criticise the department for any perceived injustice. She explained to the court that at the time no one else was writing about such issues, and that she felt very proud of her blog.
In May 2008 the local authority voted to amend its constitution to allow the funding of libel cases. Mrs Thompson had then expressed the opinion that this was nothing less than a 'slush fund'.
Asked why she wanted to carry out filming of council meetings, she replied that it was for the purpose of transparency, that she knew other bloggers were doing so, and she was aware of the guidelines issued by Eric Pickles encouraging such activity.
At a full council meeting she had been seen with her phone by a council officer. She was tweeting from the public gallery. She alleged that he pulled the phone out of her hands 'forcibly'. She took it back, but he became 'agitated'. She felt she was not doing anything wrong, and was upset at having her phone grabbed. She decided to leave. 'He followed me out.' She reported what she described as 'an assault' to the police.
On the 8th June she attended another full council meeting. Some elderly residents were trying to present a petition regarding the closure of a day centre, but the meeting continued with no discussion of the issue they wished to raise. Jacqui started to film. She told the court that she was trying to make a stand about recording meetings. It was a public space, she said, and there were no rules about not filming.
Mark James, the Chief Executive, ordered her to stop. She did not, so he called the police.
Four police officers came to arrest her. She was handcuffed and searched.
She was then taken down and out to a police car and driven to a police station where she spent another two and a half hours in handcuffs.
She was put in a cell, and her shoes, socks and even her wedding ring removed.
At this point, the barrister for Mr James reminded the judge that had objected to this part of Mrs Thompson's evidence.
It would seem that his objections had been over ruled.
Jacqui told the court that after some hours in the police station she was obliged to sign an undertaking that she would desist from filming council meetings. She would otherwise have been kept in custody overnight.
Asked how she felt about the remarks made by Mr James in response to the Mad Axeman's blog post, Jacqui Thompson said that she felt she and her relatives had been portrayed as 'the family from hell', that she had 'perverted the course of justice', that she was insincere, that 'he had thrown a big question mark over everything I had said and was doing'. She thought that he would be believed, as the Chief Executive, and that she could only challenge this legally. She felt that other people would think less of her, that she was a liar. Over such a prolonged period, it was extremely difficult to deal with, upsetting, time consuming, stressful: quite awful.
The hearing was adjourned at this point and will resume tomorrow, when Mrs Thompson will be cross examined by Mr James' barrister.