Taxpayers shouldn't be funding South Tyneside councillors to sue Twitter, and catch Mr Monkey

June 07, 2011 1:46 PM

The Mr Monkey blog was a colourful account of local politics in South Tyneside.  It is hard to say how much was accurate and how much was mudslinging, but it seriously upset the council.  They initially banned access to the site from computers in their offices. When that simply drew more attention to it they resorted to legal action. Unfortunately they ran up against the Giggs Conundrum: you don't know who to sue unless you can get the identity of the person you're going after from companies like WordPress and Twitter. They are over in the United States and protected by the glorious First Amendment so that is quite hard. If you're South Tyneside Council though, with recourse to the pockets of taxpayers, then it is possible.

[caption id="attachment_38443" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Is this Mr Monkey?"][/caption]

The first thing to note is that councils themselves can't sue for libel.  In the 1993 case of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers the Law Lords ruled that it was vital that people were free to criticise public bodies:

"It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism."


For that reason, all these cases are being brought by a collection of councillors and staff.  But taxpayers have no stake in whether or not a blog has hurt the reputation of Iain Malcolm, the leader of South Tyneside Council, and his three colleagues and fellow litigants.  It is about their personal interests in defending their reputation.  The best excuse the council come up with for spending taxpayers' money on that is an analogy to harassment cases, and their duty to look after their staff.  But there is no duty of care for someone's reputation and there is no clear right and wrong as there is in a harassment case.  If someone in a public role, and councillors and senior staff definitely fit that bill, is insulted by someone suggesting that they have done something wrong, that is a matter for them to defend.  They can choose to ignore it in a way that people obviously can't in harassment cases.  If they don't want to do that then the public body shouldn't be funding one side in a dispute over whether someone has lied and defamed another.  The parties should settle that themselves.

[caption id="attachment_38444" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Or is this Mr Monkey?"][/caption]

What the council have bought with the taxpayers' chequebook is the help of a high powered US law firm.  The Daily Mail thinks the cost could be as high as £250,000.  An independent councillor, who has exposed wrongdoing at the council and who they suspect of being Mr Monkey - though he denies it, Cllr Ahmed Khan isn't really well placed to defend the case in the States.  We aren't talking about a major newspaper group, though even they would have to think twice about trying to match South Tyneside's profligacy.  So his privacy was violated by a court order it was never really going to be practical for him to defend, releasing his Twitter accounts, mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses.  He has described his situation as "Orwellian", and it's hard to argue when you read this description of what he has faced, from the BBC report:

"Mr Khan, who denies being the author, said he was first contacted by Twitter in April about a subpoena lodged with the Californian court.




[caption id="attachment_38446" align="alignright" width="300" caption="This could be Mr Monkey, that's definitely a guilty look"][/caption]

He said he was told he had 21 days to lodge a legal argument against the action, otherwise the details would be released.


The councillor said he was told by Twitter that the information included IP identities, mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses."


That isn't just important for this case.  South Tyneside have pioneered a new way for the rich and powerful to restrict the free speech and invade the privacy of their critics.  While anonymity can be abused, it can be essential to stop dissenters and whistleblowers being stamped on.  That means the problem is bigger than taxpayers' money being wasted supporting essentially private legal cases (if they aren't private, they are even less legitimate).  We are funding a case that undermines free expression and, whether or not Mr Monkey's claims were genuine, will have a powerful chilling effect deterring future, important criticism of public bodies.

[caption id="attachment_38447" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="One of them is bound to be Mr Monkey"][/caption]

Either South Tyneside council are funding this case because it is really their case, and they're using a backdoor to avoid the proper restrictions on public bodies suing for libel.  Or, they are putting taxpayers' money behind a case for their officers.  Both of those options constitute a gross abuse of taxpayers' money.  Even if all Mr Monkey's claims were fictitious, the anonymous blogger has exposed an absolutely cavalier attitude to our money.  There were other options open to them: ignore the anonymous blog, reply setting out why it was wrong, if they really felt offended launch their own libel case.

Maybe the legal case we really need is against the council, for misuse of public money?The Mr Monkey blog was a colourful account of local politics in South Tyneside.  It is hard to say how much was accurate and how much was mudslinging, but it seriously upset the council.  They initially banned access to the site from computers in their offices. When that simply drew more attention to it they resorted to legal action. Unfortunately they ran up against the Giggs Conundrum: you don't know who to sue unless you can get the identity of the person you're going after from companies like WordPress and Twitter. They are over in the United States and protected by the glorious First Amendment so that is quite hard. If you're South Tyneside Council though, with recourse to the pockets of taxpayers, then it is possible.

[caption id="attachment_38443" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Is this Mr Monkey?"][/caption]

The first thing to note is that councils themselves can't sue for libel.  In the 1993 case of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers the Law Lords ruled that it was vital that people were free to criticise public bodies:

"It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism."


For that reason, all these cases are being brought by a collection of councillors and staff.  But taxpayers have no stake in whether or not a blog has hurt the reputation of Iain Malcolm, the leader of South Tyneside Council, and his three colleagues and fellow litigants.  It is about their personal interests in defending their reputation.  The best excuse the council come up with for spending taxpayers' money on that is an analogy to harassment cases, and their duty to look after their staff.  But there is no duty of care for someone's reputation and there is no clear right and wrong as there is in a harassment case.  If someone in a public role, and councillors and senior staff definitely fit that bill, is insulted by someone suggesting that they have done something wrong, that is a matter for them to defend.  They can choose to ignore it in a way that people obviously can't in harassment cases.  If they don't want to do that then the public body shouldn't be funding one side in a dispute over whether someone has lied and defamed another.  The parties should settle that themselves.

[caption id="attachment_38444" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Or is this Mr Monkey?"][/caption]

What the council have bought with the taxpayers' chequebook is the help of a high powered US law firm.  The Daily Mail thinks the cost could be as high as £250,000.  An independent councillor, who has exposed wrongdoing at the council and who they suspect of being Mr Monkey - though he denies it, Cllr Ahmed Khan isn't really well placed to defend the case in the States.  We aren't talking about a major newspaper group, though even they would have to think twice about trying to match South Tyneside's profligacy.  So his privacy was violated by a court order it was never really going to be practical for him to defend, releasing his Twitter accounts, mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses.  He has described his situation as "Orwellian", and it's hard to argue when you read this description of what he has faced, from the BBC report:

"Mr Khan, who denies being the author, said he was first contacted by Twitter in April about a subpoena lodged with the Californian court.




[caption id="attachment_38446" align="alignright" width="300" caption="This could be Mr Monkey, that's definitely a guilty look"][/caption]

He said he was told he had 21 days to lodge a legal argument against the action, otherwise the details would be released.


The councillor said he was told by Twitter that the information included IP identities, mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses."


That isn't just important for this case.  South Tyneside have pioneered a new way for the rich and powerful to restrict the free speech and invade the privacy of their critics.  While anonymity can be abused, it can be essential to stop dissenters and whistleblowers being stamped on.  That means the problem is bigger than taxpayers' money being wasted supporting essentially private legal cases (if they aren't private, they are even less legitimate).  We are funding a case that undermines free expression and, whether or not Mr Monkey's claims were genuine, will have a powerful chilling effect deterring future, important criticism of public bodies.

[caption id="attachment_38447" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="One of them is bound to be Mr Monkey"][/caption]

Either South Tyneside council are funding this case because it is really their case, and they're using a backdoor to avoid the proper restrictions on public bodies suing for libel.  Or, they are putting taxpayers' money behind a case for their officers.  Both of those options constitute a gross abuse of taxpayers' money.  Even if all Mr Monkey's claims were fictitious, the anonymous blogger has exposed an absolutely cavalier attitude to our money.  There were other options open to them: ignore the anonymous blog, reply setting out why it was wrong, if they really felt offended launch their own libel case.

Maybe the legal case we really need is against the council, for misuse of public money?

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