By Steven Downes
Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council, has tried to have news reports removed from this website with a threat of a libel action which has been robustly rejected by Inside Croydon.
It is almost six months since Newman instructed solicitors Harbottle and Lewis to send their threat of legal action to Inside Croydon, as the council leader sought to cover-up an earlier cover-up, his own part in the abrupt resignation of Niro Sirisena as a Croydon councillor.
Although Newman has recently been boasting to anyone gullible enough to believe a word he says that he has somehow succeeded in gagging Inside Croydon, the articles remain published and unaltered. This website stands by the accounts as fair and accurate versions of events which some within Croydon Labour consider to be a stain of shame on their party under Newman.
You can see them here:
Council leader delayed reporting violent incident to police;
Fears that Newman cover-up could impact Jones’s election.
The solicitors’ letter was dated just a week before December’s General Election. This may be significant.
The articles reported on aspects of the sordid events of September and October last year, when Sirisena was confronted by his council leader and local party colleagues and forced to quit forthwith as a councillor.
Sirisena was only elected to the council in May 2018, though despite his lack of experience and little being known by the party about his background, he was fast-tracked by Newman to a promotion as a deputy cabinet member as soon as he took his seat in the Town Hall.
Inside Croydon was the first to reveal that this “serious incident” was a case of domestic abuse, following an evening when the councillor had been enjoying the council’s free booze at the opening of the Fairfield Halls.
Sirisena is understood to have admitted his offence to his ward colleague, Chris Clark, while at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. It is notable that in recent weeks, Newman has handed Clark a 25 per cent allowances pay hike, appointing him to chair the planning committee.
As Inside Croydon reported last autumn, on receiving the information about Sirisena from Clark, Newman’s first move was not to report the serious assault to the police. It is noteworthy that Newman has been known to wear on his lapel a white ribbon, signal that he is opposed to all forms of domestic abuse.
In this case, Newman arranged a meeting to confront Sirisena and secure his resignation as a councillor. This would ensure that Sirisena would not be a Labour councillor if or when any arrest might be made.
Inside Croydon understands that Newman, despite being the borough’s most senior elected representative, has never reported the incident to the police. Statements were taken from Sirisena, Clark and the victim. No charges were ever pursued.
In December, Inside Croydon received an email from Harbottle and Lewis, the swanky Savoy Court firm of solicitors.
Their letter – sent to a local news website – was marked “Not for publication or dissemination”.
It said, “We write to make you aware that the claims made in the Articles are untrue, and seriously defamatory of Councillor Newman. The Articles wrongly allege that when Councillor Newman he became aware of an allegation of domestic violence involving Councillor Sirosena, he spent 24 hours seeking to cover it up (the ‘Allegation’).
“Such Allegation is untrue and is seriously defamatory of our client, and indeed to allege that he would seek to ‘cover-up’ an allegation of serious criminal misconduct is of the highest order.
“As is clear from Councillor Newman’s statement published in Private Eye, the other party involved in the matter wished to report the matter to the police on her own terms and she was given the space to do so. Had she failed to report the incident to the police, appropriate action would have been taken. The matter was in fact reported to the police, and Councillor Newman was therefore satisfied that the matter was being dealt with in the appropriate manner.
“As such the suggestion of a so-called cover-up is entirely incorrect.” Which is one point of view, though not one we share. And the facts seem to support the contention.
The solicitors’ letter simpers on about how the allegations were not put to Newman before publication.
The fact is, Newman has neither spoken to nor replied to any emails from Inside Croydon or me, as its editor, since the day in late April 2014 when he was seen to shake my hand after discussing appointing me to a communications role at the council in the event of Labour winning control of the Town Hall.
Newman’s lawyers’ letter in December included no claim as to damages to their client’s reputation, but it did demand that the website’s reports should be removed by 5pm that same day.
Events took a strange turn the following day when someone from Harbottle and Lewis called me on my personal, private telephone line, demanding to know why the articles still remained online. I have responded that this highly unusual action by the solicitors can be regarded as an attempt at “harassment”.
Inside Croydon received legal advice which indicated that requiring such immediate action was clearly an attempt to intimidate. I wrote to Newman’s lawyers describing their demands as “unreasonable and unrealistic. This may well reflect the nature of your client”.
Since the day it was launched, this website has always provided an immediate right of reply to its readers through the comments section, and if contacted in a reasonable manner I am always happy to correct matters of verifiable fact if inaccuracies are found in our reports. Notably, Newman made no such effort to seek a correction for more than two months, until instructing lawyers.
In reply to Harbottle and Lewis, I wrote, “It should be noted that you are receiving this response in less time than it took Newman and other councillors to report to the police a serious incident of domestic violence against a young woman that they learned may have been committed by one of their colleagues.
“It is also the case that a letter from a firm of lawyers demanding that news reports be immediately removed from the public domain might, to any reasonable member of the public, be seen to be an attempt to ‘cover-up’ the information contained in those reports.”
I also asked, “How is your client funding his legal representation?”
Five months on, there has never been any answer to this point.
Top London libel lawyers might charge £600-plus per letter, plus time on the clock. It is also unlawful for councillors or council officials to use council funds to pay for their own legal actions (although, since Newman doesn’t work for a living, he might have funded his legal letter out of his £56,000 per year council allowances. So, ultimately, it could still be all money from Council Tax-payers).
We have been investigating this potential abuse of public funds in other ways, too.
But the “open and transparent” Croydon Council has refused to answer a request under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act seeking the correspondence with Harbottle and Lewis which may have instigated their legal action. This matter is now being pursued with the Information Commissioner.
We did receive a further letter from Harbottle and Lewis (“600 quid please, Mr Newman”, kerching), which suggested that our coverage of the council leader’s regular displays of bumbling incompetence and political ineptitude as somehow being driven by “malice” towards the Woodside councillor. Malice is a serious matter, and something which tends to render libel actions all the more expensive, if it can be proven.
I am quite happy to set the record straight in that regard here and now.
I have no malice for Tony Newman.
I just regard him with utter contempt.
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