Wednesday 9 November 2016

The Ritual of Vengeance: Welsh blogger Jacqui Thompson fights for her home

If in the ritual
Of vengeance he live,
He makes perpetual
His failure to forgive.
No; to those arbiters
Of true behaviour
There is no strength but stirs
To honour its saviour.

Vernon Watkins

One of the more complex stories covered by this blog, over the course of the past few years, is a still continuing saga about another blogger; a Welsh woman named Jacqui Thompson, who writes under the name of 'Caebrwyn' - also the name of the isolated spot where she lives, in rural Carmarthenshire, and where her husband Kerry makes his living as a forestry worker.

A small, middle aged woman, quiet, and modest, yet fiercely intelligent, and brave: her blog has been outspoken in its coverage - and criticism - of the activities of Carmarthenshire County Council, including the behaviour of the county council's Chief Executive, Mr Mark James.

Mr James is now one of the most highly paid Chief Executives of any Welsh authority, earning around £185,000 per annum, but he started off, funnily enough, as a rather more lowly officer for ... the London Borough of Broken Barnet. There could be no better preparation for the career of any Chief Executive, of course.

The long running tale of the fight between Mark James and Jacqui Thompson first came to the attention of the media about five years ago, when, in a most extraordinary act, the Chief Executive had Mrs Thompson arrested in the public gallery of the county hall during a council meeting - simply because she was filming a few minutes of the proceedings on her phone. Jacqui was taken away in handcuffs, and kept in custody, in a police cell, for several hours, as a result of this innocuous, and perfectly lawful act.

Arrested for filming a council meeting on her phone ... pic credit Alex Murray Smith

By any standard of measurement, such ludicrous treatment was utterly unnecessary, but it was all the more shocking at a time when the idea of citizen journalism was beginning to meet with approval from the government, and promoted by no less than Eric Pickles, who wanted to encourage the scrutiny of local government by its electorate, and hoped that it would enable residents and taxpayers to hold their elected representatives to account.

Mark James, of course, was not, and is not, an elected representative, but the servant of that electorate and their representatives: an administrator. Yet he wields a power that is far beyond that of most Chief Executives, and enjoys a wide scope of influence within the process of governance in Carmarthenshire - and beyond.

To understand the background to this event, and the battle between Mark James and Jacqui Thompson, it is necessary to note that the early genesis of her blogging career came, as did many others, from a personal issue, and a sense of injustice over the handling of that issue, in this case by her local planning authority.

Caebrwyn's award winning blog, although it now covers a wide range of political matters in Carmarthenshire, still bears the title: 'Carmarthenshire Planning Problems, and more' ... and as explained so well in this piece published in the West Wales Review,by Patricia Dodd Racher, originated from a sequence of unsuccessful planning applications handled by the local authority.

Mrs Thompson was not the only person to have raised serious questions about the local planning department, as I reported from the later libel hearing in the High Court which occurred as a consequence of the #daftarrest incident, as it became known.

On the fourth day of the case, Jacqui's counsel asked:

"What about the action of local MP  Jonathan Edwards, calling for the Audit Commission to look into the planning department at Carmarthenshire County Council, the very same department that Mrs Thompson was so concerned about?

I'm sorry, said Mr James. I can't recall."

And as I also reported at the time, the case attracted a lot of attention in the national media:

"Legal blogger David Allen Green has described the judgement as being, in his view, 'illiberal', and Mrs Angry would have to agree. 

Nick Cohen remarked on twitter:

In democracies the public holds the govt to account, not the other way round. In Britain however.. #daftarrest… …

Campaigning journalist Heather Brooke commented on twitter:

 So @caebrwyn loses #daftarrest libel trial. Judge didn't seem to have a lot of time for her or her arguments so not totally surprised."

There was also a leader in the Times, on the last day of the trial, 20th February 2013, which was highly critical of Carmarthenshire County Council, accusing it of wielding 'excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen' and becoming a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability': 

The reference to the Derbyshire judgment would seem to be significant, one would think - but this argument ultimately failed, despite the evidence offered that Jacqui Thompson's criticism of James was part of a wider and reasonable act of scrutiny of the council's activities.

In a second article in the 'West Wales Review', there are examples given of what are described as 'planning contradictions which have perplexed applicants and the public'.

Since Caebrwyn's blog was founded, it has grown in scope and depth of scrutiny, and covered many local issues, posing questions that may not be welcomed by Mr James or his employers at Carmarthenshire County Council, but which address issues and concerns that are most certainly in the public interest, such as the council's relationship with the local Scarlets' rugby team - and the curious tale of the evangelical bowling alley, to name but two.

Blogger 'Caebrwyn' - Jacqui Thompson ... pic credit SW Guardian

Among the outspoken critics of this local authority, perhaps rather surprisingly, we find the former Former Dyfed-Powys Police and Crime Commissioner Christopher Salmon, who is quoted in an article published this May in the South Wales Evening Post as comparing the council to a 'Sicilian cartel':

"... looking back at his time as commissioner, Mr Salmon said he wouldn't miss "online bores", Carmarthenshire Council and the "police mob".

After describing the local authority as a cartel, he added: "It's everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell).

"It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

After Mr James had had Jacqui Thompson arrested for using her phone in the public gallery, events had taken a rather unexpected direction: beginning with a completely unexpected move by Mr James, as explained by her fellow Carmarthenshire blogger, the masterly Cneifiwr, who has written a incisive post on the story here, and reminds us of the beginning of the libel action:

It is worth remembering that following the arrest, Mr James, the most senior officer in a local authority, took the extraordinary step of posting his thoughts on the Mad Axeman blog, written by someone who lives not in Wales but the north of England, and that it was those incendiary comments, attacking not just Jacqui but her entire family, which triggered the libel case.

Is it normal for council chief executives to attack a family living in his or her local authority area on a blog in their capacity as Head of Paid Service? It is a reasonable bet that Mr James is the only one ever to have done so, just as he was the only council chief executive ever to persuade his council to adopt an (unlawful) libel indemnity clause in its constitution allowing him to pay for his counter-claim using council funds ...

Yes: quite why James saw fit to make such remarks, is unclear, but this led Jacqui Thompson to feel she had no option but to take legal action to defend the reputation of herself and her family. James, backed up by the council's indemnity, was able to take a counter claim: after an astonishingly condemnatory verdict from Judge Tugendhat, acting on his own, rather than, as expected, the hearing being held before a jury, James won, Jacqui lost, and three years later, is now being pursued by him for the damages awarded. 

Mark James after his successful hearing at the High Court

As you may read here, at the libel hearing Mr James was not able to recall the details of a meeting at which the report approving the indemnity, later found to be unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office, was discussed, in his presence, as an emergency item.

Mark James is now determined to obtain the money awarded to him as a result of this council funded counter claim: due to an 8% interest rate, this now stands at £35,000. But Jacqui is also being pursued for costs by Carmarthenshire County Council, of £190,000. 

This story has now been picked up by the Rotten Boroughs' column in the new Private Eye:

Jacqui Thompson cannot pay either of these amounts, so a charge has been put on her home by the council - and Mr James will expect to receive his share of any capital accruing from the sale, should it be allowed, even though the action he took in the first place was unlawfully funded by his employers. As Cneifiwr has pointed out, there appears to be a lack of clarity as to whether or not the money James extracts from Mrs Thompson should be returned to the council, or whether he will keep the money himself.

Apart from the terrible financial punishment now being executed in the courts, this year has seen further attempts at action against Mrs Thompson by Mr James.

In April, she was informed that he wanted to return to the High Court and begin proceedings against her for contempt of court, and that he had referred matters to the local police, asking them, as she explained, to conduct an investigation 'with a view to considering criminal prosecution for harassment, relating to the blog'.

On the 12th July she was also told that an additional criminal allegation of perverting the course of justice had been made against her 'at some point', and that officers were investigating this as well. Months of anxiety passed, yet the police made no contact. She was left almost completely in the dark about the enquiries that were continuing, and had no way of defending herself from whatever allegations were being considered. 

Carmarthenshire County Council CEO, Mark James

In August, Matthew Paul, a barrister - and sometime local Conservative candidate - spoke out against this investigation in an opinion piece in the Carmarthenshire Herald, in no uncertain terms: denouncing the whole process, the lack of legal basis, and the apparent motives behind it. He pointed out that Mr James had himself been the subject of police enquiries, in 2014, (along with the Pembrokeshire CEO, over a matter of cash payments in lieu of employer pension contributions) but Dyfed-Powys police had passed the investigation over to Gloucestershire Constabulary 'like a primed grenade', because of  'the close working relationships and partnership arrangements that existed between Dyfed-Powys Police and Carmarthenshire Council'. This made it 'not appropriate for the local force to carry out the enquiry'.

Mr Paul commented that the relationship between the local police and council appeared not to have broken down since 2014, yet it was still able then to investigate James's own allegations in regard to Mrs Thompson. He also observed that in his view, 'with the worst will in the world', nothing published by her could be interpreted as harassment. On the 18th August, however, although the investigation into perverting the course of justice was dropped, Jacqui Thompson was issued with a Police Warning Notice in regard to the alleged harassment. She has tried to complaint about this, unsuccessfully. But then, as she commented at the time:

As this is not a legal notice nor a caution, there is no direct way to appeal it, or defend myself.

Matthew Paul is quoted in the Eye piece this week:

The high court's judgment (and that of the court of appeal) in Thompson v James was badly wrong. It would have been entirely possible to find that neither party had libelled the other, and that the case was an immense waste of court  time and public money.

It should be noted, incidentally, that the unsuccessful appeal, in April 2014, was only allowed on one ground, that of the infamous 'slush fund' suggestion.

It had taken four and a half months for Jacqui to receive a visit from two officers from Dyfed-Powys police, to tell her that the allegation of perverting the course of justice had been dropped, as the evidential test was not met. As she commented in her blog: 

As I suspected, this criminal complaint, which was also made by Carmarthenshire Council chief executive Mr James, related to the libel judgement of High Court judge, Justice Tugendhat, in March 2013.

The judge, in 2013, made this finding on a balance of probabilities, and in a civil court. 

The finding was simply a matter of whom the judge decided to believe, she said, and she believed it was a total miscarriage of justice, which led to the withdrawal of her legal insurance and led to the huge burden of costs she now faces.

Matthew Paul also raises the question of the former Police Commissioner's remarks about Sicilian cartels being left unchallenged, while Mrs Thompson's satirical allusions to 'Pinocchio', and 'slush funds' in regard to the council's unlawful indemnity were found to be libellous. The difference, presumably, is that the cartel remark was not made in regard to an individual officer, and therefore the Derbyshire judgment would prevent any action.

The blogger Cneifiwr has written about the political background to the Mark James - Jacqui Thompson story, and explained the way in which the absence of strong leadership in Carmarthenshire has led to a greater share of power resting in the hands of a chief executive. 

With the honourable exception of the courageous and independently minded Councillor Sian Caiach, almost no other councillor in Carmarthenshire has dared to provide any form of effective challenge to the status quo. Sian Caiach continues to express her criticism of the current regime, as you may read here. And read this post from 2014, on her attempts to question the issue of the unlawful indemnity:

Cneifiwr also points out that the continuing publicity emerging from the Mark James/Jacqui Thompson story is doing nothing but damage to the reputation of the council, and that the impact on the forthcoming elections next year will be incalculable. And what will have been achieved?

The only small consolations for the rest us are that he will ultimately fail to silence his critics, and that the libel saga, meant to protect his reputation, has had the opposite effect.

As Matthew Paul remarked in August:

In a democracy, the most precious freedom we have is the ability to say or write what we think, without interference from the state. 

In Carmarthenshire, it would appear, that principle is one that is held in little respect. And as the Private Eye piece says, the price is being paid by Jacqui Thompson. The use of the legal process, the courts and the police, to pursue and punish this woman, and drive her from her home, may be possible in law, but to most observers it appears both disproportionate, and unfair. 

Mr Mark James is apparently a man of strong Christian values: it might be timely for him to demonstrate that the tenets of that faith include the obligation to forgive our enemies their trespasses, and to call a halt to his pursuit of the damages: the case was won, his reputation was vindicated; and there is nothing further to be achieved, and only more unwelcome publicity for him, and his employers, by pursuing the legal process to secure this money - from someone who simply does not have it. 

Failing that, it may at least occur to those politicians - and any others who may bring their influence to bear on this sorry business - that now is the time to act, and intervene on behalf of all parties: before it is too late.


Anonymous said...

It is to be acknowledged that this whole case is being bought to the attention of the wider public. I can only wish that The National Press will publish a follow-up to their previous comments The Welsh Government seems totally impotent in bringing this Council to account. The first Minister stated that the Payments to the Chief Executive were unlawful as did the Welsh Audit Office. It was ignored by the Council as ere any criticisms. In fact should anyone dare to criticise they are threatened with legal proceedings. There are many cases in Carmarthen where people's lives and livelihoods have been very badly affected by decisions made by this Council with no regard whatsoever for the end result.Only by having a Public Enquiry into the workings of this can there be any hope of justice being done .They are a law unto themselves answerable to no one.Our local weekly paper "The Carmarthen Herald" is taking a strong stance in exposing the injustices on the people of Camarthen,but they are local and as such do not resonate with the wider readership that is required. We almost get the feeling that east of the Severn Bridge there is little interest and concern to what happens here.Thank you for what you are doing.

Elderly Neil. said...

This blog encapsulates a factual account of events. It is lengthy to go through but it should be read by the Carmarthenshire community as a whole, together with the welsh government in Cardiff and the welsh minister in Westminster.

Cneifiwr said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Anon: I think many people are perplexed by the lack of action in regard to the indemnity business.

I also think that what happens here is not understood in areas where there is the usual Tory/Labour divide. The peculiar sort of inertia caused by the more complex political picture in Carmarthenshire has created a democratic deficit, and an absence of effective scrutiny.

'Elderly Neil': I hope - and think - that concerns about CCC have now reached beyond local boundaries and are beginning to make an impact on a wider scale.

Anonymous said...

Get it investigated - this proud do a good job

They featured the Pembrokeshire scandal before it was elevated to the BBC Wales news team:

Mrs Angry said...

Just to say I have had quite a few comments on this post which I have not published, due to the rather 'intemperate' language ... clearly feelings run very high on this issue, and many residents of Carmarthenshire - and beyond - are, unsurprisingly, appalled by what is happening to Jacqui Thompson.