“Penniless council found £300,000 to silence blogger” reads the headline in today’s Times.
“A Labour council with a £2.8million hole in its finances set up a secret £300,000 fund to silence a blogger who has been accusing it of corruption,” The Thunderer’s intro thunders.
But hold on… it’s not what you might think.
As the newspaper report’s next sentence explains: “Sandwell council in the West Midlands has admitted that it set aside taxpayers’ money from its reserves to pursue Julian Saunders, 62, a former solicitor running a blog that the council claimed was defamatory.”
Note the use of the word “claimed”. That’s probably because the council’s claims have never been put to a legal test, and undoubtedly that will be because their lawyers have a hunch that they’d lose. Recently retired solicitors are rarely reckless enough to publish anything that is defamatory.
That prospect is underlined elsewhere in the newspaper’s report, where it is stated, “Some councillors became agitated about the blog and planned legal action against Mr Saunders.” Note that: “planned”, but never actioned. Draw your own conclusions why.
Indeed, when Sandwell Council did drag Saunders before the Beak, in January 2019, he was found not guilty of charges of using threatening, abusive, insulting words or behaviour with the intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress when using a megaphone at a demonstration staged outside the council offices the previous year.
In that case, the council’s chief executive complained of feeling harassed. “I was very unhappy about it, I felt harassed, it was very inappropriate and unfair,” Jan Britton, Sandwell’s CEO, told the court.
According to The Times today, “Six years ago Mr Saunders started the Sandwell Skidder, which has been seen 1.9million times and which has included claims about questionable deals and alleged corruption.”
Sandwell has a Labour council but a Tory MP, James Morris, and he told the House of Commons that the council is “synonymous with local government incompetence, corruption and cronyism and becoming a stain on the reputation of the area”. Yes, that sounds familiar, too.
The council’s leadership became so agitated by the reporting of Saunders and the Skidder that they even tried to put the police on to him.
It appears that, when subject to a level of public scrutiny that they had never encountered before, the local politicians started making wild and unfounded assertions about Saunders. Emails show that Steve Eling, the then council leader, told police officers, “If you do not action this, it will have to become a matter for the Home Secretary.”
There were signs of paranoia at the council after Saunders’ started to publish leaked documents. Eling wanted the police to investigate this, too.
Fortunately, the local chief superintendent told the councillor to stop wasting police time. Eling has since stopped wasting the electorate’s time, too: he was suspended from the Labour Party (despite an attempted intervention by his pal, Tom Watson) and was de-selected by his local ward ahead of local elections.
Those looking for parallels between Sandwell and Croydon councils won’t have to look very far when comparing the local authorities’ approach to Freedom of Information requests.
The Times reports, “Mr Saunders has been locked in a legal battle over access to internal documents that discussed him. He has asked for information on a fund he believes was codenamed ‘Time to Stop’ and which he says was done ‘with a view to shutting him up’.
“The council has now admitted that it ‘made financial provision in the budget of £300,000 to potentially pursue litigation and resource was provided in the financial reserve’ against Mr Saunders.”
It is actually illegal for council officials to use any public funds to pay for libel litigation.
The audacity, patience and hard graft of Saunders in reporting on the activity of his basket case local authority – Sandwell is now on to its fourth council leader in two years – does make you wonder whether such a model of local reporting might work elsewhere, such as here in Croydon. And whether our council might respond in a similar manner.
Saunders has also come up with a money-raising scheme, charging £3 a time for a guided tour around the borough to point out sites of “widespread fraud and corruption”, including the Town Hall.
Now, where’s that Jo Negrini bus tour map..?
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