Have SCC tried to censor the free media?

Suffolk County Council today stands accused of attempting to censor a blog run by a well known campaigner from North Suffolk.

Mr James Hargrave, a school governor from Stradbroke, has forthright views regarding the proposals to open a number of free schools across the county, and his website has become one of the focal points of the campaign against schools being promoted by Seckford Foundation.

One of the articles he posted on his website contained an internet meme, a parody of the movie Downfall, which was seen by many people interested in the Beccles Free School, including Graham Watson of Seckford Foundation. Mr Watson inferred from the subtitles of the film that he had been cast as the character of Adolf Hitler and naturally took offence to this. The Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Seckford Foundation, Roger Finbow, wrote to Mr Hargrave requesting he remove the video, which he initially refused to do.

Mr Hargrave maintains that he was merely making use of a well known internet phenomenon, that these Downfall parodies are well known, having even been reported in the New York Times. Indeed Ipswich Spy can recall parodies that have Rupert Murdoch and Gordon Brown in the role of Adolf Hitler over the last few years. They are controversial, however, and Labour MP Tom Harris had to quit his new media role for the Labour Party after posting one casting Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond as Adolf Hitler. The Daily Telegraph even produced a list of the most popular.

So far in this story this has been a dispute between a citizen journalist and a privately run local charity. Then on Tuesday came what appears to be a rather confused attempt by Suffolk County Council to intervene and persuade Mr Hargrave to remove the video.

In a statement to Ipswich Spy, Mr Hargrave claims that he received a phone call from the Headteacher of Stradbroke Primary School, where he is Chair of Governors. He says that he was told the Head of Governor Services wanted to come to the school for a meeting to discuss the Downfall video following the receipt of complaints.

Mr Hargrave then spoke to the Head of Governor Services who told him that the video was “inappropriate” and asked him to remove it. He asked if she had read information he had sent her about the video but she would not discuss why it was inappropriate over the phone except to say it involved Hitler, asking him to attend a meeting to discuss this “face to face”.

Mr Hargrave attempted to move the proposed meeting to Endeavour House, so he could save the Education department the cost of sending two officers on a roughly 50 mile round trip, as well as not holding a meeting of this sort in front of the Headteacher he was supposed to be holding to account in his role as Chair of Governors. He claims the County Council refused to discuss this. He therefore felt he had no choice other than to remove the video from his blog.

At this point it would seem to an outsider that an anonymous complaint from a County Councillor to the council’s Monitoring Officer, Tim Ryder, had led to the effective censorship of a digital media outlet. When describing this story prior to writing the article one former SCC employee with a background in education wondered exactly when we became a police state.

However there is another side to the story. That of SCC. Suffolk County Council issued the following statement:

“We have not asked anyone to remove any online videos. We simply contacted the owner of the blog to seek a meeting to discuss whether, as a Suffolk school governor, it was appropriate.

“Unfortunately this meeting was declined. We have no legal powers to force any action and nor would be want such powers. As far as we are concerned, the matter is closed.

“Whilst it might make for an interesting blog post to suggest otherwise, we have absolutely not censored any online content.”

Mr Hargrave was sent a courtesy copy of that statement by Suffolk County Council and immediately issued a point by point denial. Mr Hargrave contends that there are factual inaccuracies in the statement, but the County Council insist they are sticking by it.

Mr Hargrave states, in an email to Ipswich Spy and copied to the County Council’s press office and monitoring officer, that it is untrue for the County Council to say they never asked anyone to remove any online videos, because the Head of Governor Services did ask him to remove the video in question. He states that the Head of Governor Services told him the video was inappropriate, so it was untrue for the County Council to say they were seeking a meeting to establish whether it was appropriate or not. Finally he says it is untrue to say the meeting was declined, since he was quite prepared to meet the County Council, just not at the time or place they proposed.

Ipswich Spy has established that the original Councillor “complaint” that sparked this whole issue came from Blackbourn County Councillor Joanna Spicer, who sits on the County Council Standards Committee, but that she was not complaining about it, merely asking an officer whether or not School Governors have to sign a Code of Conduct in the way councillors are. In an email to Mr Hargrave, Cllr Spicer says “I am told it was drawn to the county council’s attention by others but I am the only councillor to have done so.”

Frequently local councillors will complain that a command by a councillor becomes a instruction by a senior officer, a request by a middle manager and finally a suggestion from a junior official. In this case it appears that a passing inquiry by a county councillor has become a suggestion by a senior official and a firm request by a middle manager. An unusual situation. Officially Suffolk County Council deny that they ever attempted to censor the media. Yet that is exactly the effect of what has happened.

The County Council has no right to intervene in the freedom of expression of a citizen journalist, a blogger. Indeed Mr Hargrave’s freedom of expression isn’t just a fluid concept, it is a right guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is Schedule 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Whilst this isn’t an absolute right, it is difficult to see how a widely used internet meme such as the Downfall parody could possibly be a threat to public safety, national security, crime and disorder, public health, morals, or any of the other exceptions to Article 10.

To be fair the County Council accept this at senior officer level. It appears, however, that such concepts become lost as they filter down the layers of bureaucracy.

IS/PN

For further reporting see Mr Hargrave’s own blog here and Andrew Grant-Adamson’s blog here and here.

The video that sparked this controversy is back up online here.

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4 Responses

  1. Given the apparent involvement of Tim Ryder, one of the Council’s most senior “officers”, from the outset, I’m unsure this can be interpreted as increasing misplaced zealousness as it went down the ladder.
    I also fail to see how a councillor asking what is suggested to be a general question about Governor standards seemingly translates immediately into a move against Hargrave by the Council. This is less than convincing when one remembers Hargrave’s position on Free Schools and the involvement of the Councillor in pushing for them.
    Despite all the denials and finger-pointing at others, it looks to me, as an outsider, as a campaign against Hargrave on the part of the Council, and initiated by a Councillor who disagrees with him; misguidedly using the Council as her agent.

    • Actually I can quite easily imagine a situation where an innocent question to which an officer doesn’t immediately know the answer can generate all sorts of work. Not only that but Cllr Spicer makes clear other people had raised the issue with SCC.

      I do not believe anyone has reason to doubt the integrity of Cllr Spicer simply because she disagrees with them. To suggest she would attempt to censor the media is one hell of an accusation. She is a believer in fair play, and I doubt her zeal to win would overcome her belief in the rules.

      Without evidence to the contrary I believe we have to accept Cllr Spicer’s word that she did not so instruct SCC.

      • I’m afraid that I cannot unreservedly agree with you regarding the Councillor’s behaviour or motives, especially in light of her Free School stance and connections.

        The reportage of the Free Schools introduction, albeit much of it anecdotal, suggests that there are few lengths to which the Free School protagonists will not go.

        However, I have to agree with your last paragraph, and merely observe that there is “no smoke without a fire”.

  2. [...] Ipswich Spy reports, Suffolk County Council today stands accused of attempting to censor a blog run by a well-known campaigner from North Suffolk. [...]

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