The problem with fighting in the gutter is that everyone tends to get covered in muck.
So it is with the latest set-to around Aidan Burley, the MP who became notorious for attending a stag do where someone wore a Nazi costume.
This week, a schoolkid on a trip to Auschwitz tweeted:
aiden burley seen texting and dozing whilst listening to an concentration camp survivor
Burley denied dozing or being disrespectful, a position that was given quite a bit of credibility by a statement from Dr James Smith, the Director of the Holocaust Centre, who sat next to him at the talk in question.
Something seemed a little fishy, particularly given that teenagers on school trips aren’t normally that big on recognising backbench Tory MPs, so perhaps it wasn’t a huge surprise that the teacher leading the group of school children turned out to be a Labour councillor, Suzannah Reeves. According to PoliticsHome it was she who recognised Burley and “confronted” him.
The problem for Councillor Reeves (other than the appalling grammar of her pupils) is that she’s not exactly in a position to preach about controversies involving alleged anti-semitism.
As well as being a teacher and a Labour councillor, she’s also the Chair of Governors at Parrs Wood High School. Only last week, she and the school’s Headmaster were called to a meeting with Jewish community leaders angry that the school was hosting an event run by a Hamas-linked charity, Human Appeal International, listed by the US State Department as being linked to terrorism.
The school has since had to cancel the event, which was particularly embarassing given previous controversies over a pupil’s skewed perspectives on the Middle East.
Now, I’m sure Cllr Reeves isn’t anti-semitic in any way, the school trip she was running shows that she must have an understanding of the importance of Holocaust education, and there’s no suggestion she personally played any part in organising the HAI event.
But should she really be attacking Aidan Burley when the school she is meant to Govern has drawn the attention Department of Education’s extremism experts due to agreeing to host an event for a charity which is linked to funding Hamas, an anti-semitic terrorist movement dedicated to destroying Israel?
My point is simply this – perhaps the gutter isn’t the best place to fight, if you want to stay clean.
Kent County Council’s Youth Service Transformation Consultation was never going to be the most exciting public process in the world – that is, until the war against the undead cropped up.
Among the obligatory quangos, District councils, MPs, PCSOs, parents and young people listed as responding to the consultation was one “First Sergeant”, whose occupation is listed quite prominently as “Vampire Killer”.
Sadly, the submission made by the modern-day Van Helsing of Kent has not been published. With council tax at the rate it is, perhaps he now views Kent County Council as a bloodsucking institution in its own right…
The ever-tenacious David Hencke has a report of some worrying attempts by Barnet Council to muzzle local bloggers.
Wasting goodness knows how much taxpayers’ money, the local authority has now twice tried to secure rulings that would mean in effect that no blogger may write about public officials.
A local blogger, Mr Mustard, identified a £50,000-a-year (plus perks) non-job, Barnet’s new “Change and Innovation Manager“. He was doing a good public service by spotting a wasteful post stuffed full of management-speak twaddle – taking up the charge much as the TaxPayers’ Alliance has encouraged people to do for some years now.
To properly investigate how this money was being spent, Mr Mustard investigated the public blog of the person appointed to the post – a Jonathan Tunde-Wright. This was perfectly reasonable – particularly when it turns out Mr Tunde-Wright appears to be a big fan of management mantras, such as:
I am persuaded that organisational culture eats strategy for breakfast.
All in a day’s work for a blogger scrutinising public spending. But that’s not how Barnet Council saw it.
Barnet have now twice tried to secure a ruling from the Information Commissioner that Mr Mustard was in breach of the Data Protection Act by daring to blog about someone who was not part of his own family or household. If successful, they could have had him slapped with a £5,000 fine – and, of course, silenced.
Mercifully, the ICO ruled against Barnet both times – but the fact they even tried to go down this route is disturbibg.
On the surface this attempt to silence a blogger in this way is pure aggression and censorship from a public body. They wanted to shut him up regardless of the fundamental right to free speech or the entirely positive influence of bloggers and the transparency agenda because they thought it would be better that way for Barnet Council.
Look deeper than that and it gets more concerning. Numerous times in my years at the TPA we encountered attempts by public bodies to draw a false distinction between public roles and the people who occupy them. We could, we were told, talk about a job title and the associated salary, but criticising the actual public servant was not allowed.
During the compilation of the annual Public Sector and Town Hall Rich Lists we regularly got FOI responses that refused to name even a council’s Chief Executive. Tellingly, Tunde-Wright repeats this mantra in David Hencke’s article:
I also do feel that by going beyond the Post to naming the Post Holder, referencing my personal blog and making particular comments, the said blogger may have crossed the line and placed myself and my family in this uncomfortable place of feeling harassed online.
This is a pernicious attack on transparency and accountability. The Post and the Post Holder should be open to scrutiny by the public who fund both of them. The existence of a job is only one element of public spending and administration – how well the person who holds the post actually does the job is equally important.
Barnet’s argument effectively means individual incompetence or other personal failings would be beyond the realm of public scrutiny. It would be like saying no-one could cover the Liam Fox scandal because talking about him as an individual was beyond the pale, and as everyone would accept the need for a Defence Secretary then he should have stayed in post.
It is good that the ICO was robust in defence of the free speech of bloggers – but appalling that a local authority would think public scrutiny is a bad thing and then try to use legal intimidation funded by taxpayers to silence their critics.
We clearly still have a long way to go until we have a proper transparency culture.
The left-libertarian Manifesto Club have an interesting new report out today, on the assault against the freedom to distribute leaflets and flyers.
It may sound like a mundane thing, but with scores of local authorities either banning leafleting in public places or demanding that people buy a licence this is a very real limitation on free speech and the free market. Whether you’re promoting a political cause or advertising a business, you should be free to offer a leaflet about it to someone if you so wish – just as they should be free to refuse to take it.
The report is well worth a read, not least because it deals with a current issue in its historical context, drawing parallels with the tyrannical licensing of printing in the 17th Century. We often forget when focusing on the big, titanic battles over treaties or Acts of Parliament that often our liberty is lost in the small things, the quiet erosions of freedom that creep up on us with soft steps.