Attempted Termination of Real Whitby: Update
Regular readers of Real Whitby will know that on the 28th of March, Scarborough Borough Council wrote to our Internet Service Provider demanding that they to terminate our website hosting service. Three contributors to the site, including myself, were also threatened with legal action on the same day, also over allegations of wrongdoing that SBC has not specified. This was done without any prior warning or any previous complaint to Real Whitby.
On the 31st of March, Real Whitby wrote to Scarbrough Borough Council, asking it to specify which articles it objected to and why, so we could consider any complaint and the possibility of resolving this by issuing a correction, retraction or apology. Twenty one days has elapsed and we have not had any substantive response.
I am therefore writing with an update on my original article on this attempt by Scarborough Borough Council to arbitrarily impose press censorship.
It appears that Real Whitby’s offer to resolve things amicably is being ignored. Accordingly, I have written to all of the present 48 Scarborough Borough Councillors (except Councillor Chatt, at his request) bringing this matter to their attention in an Open Letter, asking them to ensure that Scarbrough Borough Council either sets out what its complaint is, or withdraws its threats of legal action.
The Open Letter is set out below for your information. I have had no response as at the time of publication.
Following the failure of Mrs Lisa Dixon, Scarborough Borough Council Head of Legal and Democratic Services, to provide a substantial response to correspondence within twenty one days, I am writing to you in an open letter concerning her letters before action demanding the closure of the Real Whitby Website. The chronology of events is as follows
- On the 27th of July 2012 I was interviewed by North Yorkshire Police at the request of County & Borough Councillor Jane Kenyon in connection with allegations of harassment over articles I had written for Real Whitby. I co-operated fully with the investigation, the interview did not reveal any evidence of any offence and I was released without charge or arrest. In short, her allegations were without substance.
- On the 28th of March 2013 Mrs Dixon wrote to the Real Whitby Internet Service Provider demanding that they terminate the website hosting service provided to Real Whitby (reproduced here: page 1, page 2) and also wrote to three of Real Whitby’s contributors essentially alleging that some of their articles were “malicious, untrue and defamatory” and constituted “criminal activity”.
- On the 9th of April, Whitby Town Council debated and carried a motion deploring the actions of SBC towards Real Whitby. Prior to the debate, SBC issued a statement to the Councillors stating that “Real Whitby…have merely been asked to desist from publishing statements which are inaccurate, misleading and defamatory”. Given that Mrs Dixon had written to our Internet Service Provider demanding that the Real Whitby website be “terminated”, it is clear that the statement contained deliberate falsehood.
- On the 11th of April I wrote to Mrs Dixon pointing out the errors in the statement and asking her to withdraw it. Her immediate response was “The press release is not withdrawn”, although she did not deny it was based on falsehood.
It is unclear from Mrs Dixon’s vague and unspecific letters if her allegations relate to some or all of the following issues covered in the local and national press following investigation by Real Whitby:
- The controversy involving several Conservative and independent Councillors who received two Broadband allowances.
- The articles concerning Councillor Jane Kenyon.
- The “MeToo!” controversy.
- The allegation, that Conservative Councillor and former Mayor Peter Jaconelli was a paedophile and that he was protected by Scarborough Borough Council and the Police.
- The criticism of Mrs Dixon’s performance as Monitoring Officer.
- Concerns over conflicts of interest in the North York Moors National Parks Authority for which Mrs Dixon has responsibility for as Monitoring Officer
- The resignation of Conservative Councillor Tim Lawn on the 18th of March
- Concern that Conservative and some independent candidates who received two Broadband allowances would have their electoral chances damaged by press coverage during the County Council elections.
Or to other matters.
The public response to these events has been that Whitby Town Council has passed a motion censuring SBC for trying to close down the Real Whitby website and prevent freedom of speech. Private Eye has also criticised her actions and, having taken legal advice, has confirmed that the allegations made by Real Whitby, that Mrs Dixon describes as “malicious, untrue and defamatory” are in fact “accurate”.
We are confident that this response reflects public and press opinion should the matter go to Court, particularly as those Councillors who wish to proceed with a High Court action will be subject to cross examination on all of the above matters, should it come to that.
To try and resolve this, Real Whitby wrote to Mrs Dixon on the 31st of March, asking her to specify which articles she objected to and why, so her views could be considered and a correction or apology issued if this was appropriate. Her eventual response to me was “I do not intend to enter into correspondence with you at this at stage in relation to any proposed legal action to be undertaken by the Council”.
It therefore appears that having issued a letter before action, attempting to close down Real Whitby and threatening its contributors with civil and criminal legal action, Mrs Dixon is unwilling or unable to specify what her complaint is, or participate in any attempt to resolve the matter by discussion.
The current situation therefore causes me the following concerns:
- The existence of a free press is an essential quality in a Democratic society. SBC has tried to close down a news magazine at election time. This gravest of actions, attracting local and national criticism, was apparently not put before the full Council.
- SBC blatantly lied about its actions in a statement put before Whitby Town Council and then released to the public through the press.
- The WTC motion shows that SBC is acting contrary to local opinion and to the public interest.
- Mrs Dixon will not confirm who drafted and authorised the issue of the press release. Given that it related to legal action, it must presumably have been approved at some point by Mrs Dixon, who has a conflict of interest in this matter.
- Having had the falsehoods in the statement pointed out to her, Mrs Dixon refused to issue a correction and the public position of SBC currently is that it has not tried to close down Real Whitby, when in fact it is clearly documented that it did.
- SBC is currently refusing to disclose who authorised legal action to terminate Real Whitby, or what process it went through.
- Legal action was mentioned in the forward plan on the 1st of March and again on the 26th of March 2013:
Mrs Dixon has confirmed: “For your information the legal action to which you refer was not discussed at the Cabinet meeting of 26 March 2013, nor was any motion or report tabled in relation to it. The issue of the letter did not require Cabinet approval. Councillor Kenyon did not instigate or suggest the sending of this letter.” The Key Decisions List on the 26th of March 2013 called for a decision by the Cabinet on the 23rd of April. However, on the 28thof March 2013, Mrs Dixon nevertheless wrote threatening legal action, i.e. 26 days before the Cabinet was scheduled to come to a decision.
- A number of Councillors have conflicts of interest in this matter. Those Cabinet Members who have a personal interest would have to leave the Chamber for the duration of the item on closing down Real Whitby, thus making the Cabinet inquorate. This would appear to me to invalidate any instruction the Head of Legal & Democratic Services may or may not have received from the Cabinet. It therefore appears that Mrs Dixon has initiated legal action without a mandate to do so, in a matter in which she and others had a conflict of interest.
- Legal action was threatened on the basis of allegations that Real Whitby articles are defamatory and “hindering the ability of the Council to discharge a number of its functions”, yet when asked to confirm which articles are alleged to be at fault, which Councillors and/or Officers claim to have been defamed, which functions are being hindered, which Councillors and Officers have authorised legal action on their behalf and the specific basis of these allegations, Mrs Dixon has refused to comment within a reasonable time scale.
- Allegations have been made of criminal activity, although this has already been investigated by the Police once and found to be without substance. Further, the Police are not empowered to intervene in cases of this nature because they are covered by the civil law of libel, not criminal law.
- Mrs Dixon should never have issued a letter before action, demanding the closure of Real Whitby, threatening libel action and potentially criminal proceedings if she did not have authority from the Council to enter into subsequent correspondence on it and come to a resolution. This serves only to cause an extended period of alarm and distress for no reason. I consider this completely unacceptable, particularly as Mrs Dixon is aware that Mr Ward is a pensioner in poor health and that her letter has affected his health adversely, as has her continued refusal to respond to correspondence, thereby leaving this threat hanging over him.
The current situation is bizarre, in that SBC is maintaining its position that the Real Whitby website should be terminated to our ISP, whilst publicly denying this in the press and to the public. It appears that appropriate procedures were not followed to authorise the threats of legal action and although Real Whitby responded promptly and reasonably offering to discuss SBC’s concerns, SBC is refusing to confirm what the grounds for its dissatisfaction are, or which Councillors and/or Officers claim to have been defamed and have authorised Mrs Dixon to threaten legal proceedings in their name, or which functions the Council is unable to fulfil.
It is a legal maxim that allegations which are unsupported by evidence are worthless. This matter has obviously been completely mishandled. The letters have achieved nothing other than to increase the numbers of people accessing the Real Whitby website and its profile nationally on the one hand, and to cause alarm and distress whilst bringing the Council into even more public disrepute and ridicule on the other.
To achieve a sensible resolution, I would ask that you raise this matter and ensure that either Scarborough Borough Council provides a list of the articles it deems to be offensive, indicating precisely which comments they are referring to, along with a list of the associated complainants, or alternatively it withdraws the threats of legal action and corrects the statement.
Because of the public interest in this matter I have written to you in an open letter, which will be published this evening. I will publish any response or rebuttal SBC or any Councillor wishes to make public.
I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
First Published April 2013