County council failed to heed warning before pursuing blogger
A senior officer of Suffolk County Council did not follow internal advice which would have avoided it being accused of trying to “censor the free media“, a Freedom of Information response has revealed.
The incident arose from a Downfall video parody posted on his blog by James Hargrave who is both a governor of his village primary school in Stradbroke and a vociferous campaigner against a new Free School to be opened in Beccles.
Downfall videos are an internet meme in which sub-titles are added to a sequence from the film of the same name in which Hitler hears defeat is imminent. In this case the captions related to the Free Schools plans of the Seckford Foundation.
Hargrave explained in his blog what happened after he had rejected a request from Seckford to remove the video:
I received a phone call effectively summoning me to a meeting with someone from Suffolk County Council to discuss this video.
The matter had already been discussed with the Head of my children’s school where I am also the Chair of Governors.
I eventually spoke to this council officer who wanted to drive all the way from Ipswich with a colleague to talk to me about about the video. The officer refused point blank to discuss the format of the meeting and who would be present and eventually “closed the conversation down”.
Hargrave also produced a new video putting himself in the Hitler role (it is on the same post as the above link). But he did remove the first video because he wanted to avoid involving his children’s school.
A freedom of Information response has now shown something of what happened.
The email trail starts with one from County Councillor Joanna Spicer to Tim Ryder, the Monitoring Officer, one of the council’s most senior officers. It reads:
I have just had an anonymous telephone call leading me to the latest Hargrave blog.
Please see the link – and if possible save it – I am not sure I know how to. It may get deleted if it is not saved
This is portraying the Beccles situation with a Nazi film. It is vile and it is unacceptable that the creator of this “film” on the world wide web is appointed by us as a school governor (and is chairman).
It shows Graham Watson as Hitler
Do school governors sign any form of code of conduct ?
Every journalist is familiar with the “it has been drawn to my attention…” intro. Spicer is a strong supporter of Free Schools and the Seckford bids. Her concern seems to have been to preserve the evidence, rather than the simple removal of the video
Ryder sought advice from Kate Thomas, the Governor Services Manager, who replies:
Having looked at the video – I think the fact that it names local schools and the video depicts Nazi characters and unfortunately its school related, this undoubtedly shows the governors (sic) actions to have been inconsistent with the school’s ethos/religious character.
She suggests as a first stage a meeting with the governor and letting him know “our concerns” regarding the inappropriateness of the video. Depending on his response “we could point out that we would advise the governing Body to suspend him for 6 months”.
But there is very different advice from Simon White, the Director of Children’s and Young People’s Services, which anticipates Hargrave’s reaction accurately:
I would be very wary of taking this course, Kate.
I think Mr Hargreaves would contend that his blogging is nothing to do with his role as a governor, but legitimate political activity that any citizen can undertake. It is not analogous to, say, membership of the BNP, where we make the argument that while no organisation is proscribed the published views of the BNP are inconsistent with activity in a multi cultural setting. Opposition to Free Schools is not like that, and so cannot be argued to be inconsistent with his office. The GB would be the judges of whether he is bringing his office into disrepute by posting a Downfall parody – which is an established form of satire – there are literally hundreds of them on You Tube, mostly about football. I very much doubt whether they would make that judgement, and so us getting heavy with them would not play well politically.
Jane Sheat, the Diocesan Director of Eduction, is also consulted as Stadbroke is a C of E primary school. She consults a lawyer and responds:
Given our views that it does not bring Stradbroke CEVCP into disrepute nor is it inconsistent with the schools’ religious character, I would not envisage being involved, although I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss
There is no evidence from the emails that the council’s communications and media people were consulted. If they were, I imagine, their response would also have been to steer clear and would probably echo Skeat’s comment: “The Seckford Foundation may, of course, pursue.”
The Freedom of Information response sheds light on what happened at the County Council but gives no indication of why, despite a warning that “getting heavy with them would not play well politically”, they pressured Hargrave.
In his blog about the response to his FoI request Hargrave writes that he was amazed that these complaints were taken at face value and the “clear political motivation” was missed.
I hope the county council will think carefully about its procedure for reacting to future social media comments which councillors or officers do not like.