Thursday 14th November 2019,
North Yorks Enquirer

“a new era of openness and transparency” – Comrade Siddons Style

“a new era of openness and transparency” – Comrade Siddons Style

In today’s Letter to the Editor, TIM HICKS shares his latest appeal to SBC Leader Councillor Steve Siddons [Lab.] in respect of press freedom.

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From: Timothy Hicks
Sent: 13 October 2019 16:48
To: cllr.steve.siddons@scarborough.gov.uk
Subject: Open letter concerning the SBC policy of designating contributors to the North Yorks Enquirer as a “Pressure Group”.

Dear Comrade Siddons,

Open Letter concerning the SBC policy of designating contributors to the North Yorks Enquirer as a “Pressure Group”

Following on from your promise, in Full Council on the day you were elected Leader of Scarborough Borough Council, that your election would usher in “a new era of openness and transparency“. I write concerning the photoon below in which it is suggested that you should receive the Order of Lenin for your services to repression of a free press in Scarborough.

Although this is satire, it nevertheless makes an important point of principal.

Following on from the exposure of Former Conservative Councillor and Mayor Peter Jaconelli as a rapist and paedophile and the NYE coverage of the Ben Marriott whistleblower scandal, some Scarborough Borough Councillors (SBC) and Officers have pursued a campaign of suppression of community journalists that write for Real Whitby and then its successor the North Yorks Enquirer. This has included:

  • Threats of legal action, which the Council then backed down from prosecuting.
  • Offensive public statements which SBC Officers were unable to support with evidence.
  • Denials that SBC was trying to close down Real Whitby, which were subsequently shown to be untrue. BBC report here
  • Public statements in full Council by the Conservative leader of the Council that NYE journalists should be subject to “threat and retaliation” for saying “what they want, when they want”.
  • Refusal to respond to Freedom of Information requests or courteous correspondence. This denies journalists and local people the information they need to hold the council to account.

It seems wrong to me that you can both support a policy of refusing to respond to correspondence with a local internet news magazine on the basis that the North Yorks Enquirer internet news magazine is a “Pressure Group” whose stated aim is to cause nuisance and distress to SBC. When in fact neither the NYE or any of its journalists have ever stated this, every Councillor in Scarborough Borough Councillor reads the NYE and many write articles in it.

Clearly the basis of this policy of continual ongoing suppression of community journalism in Scarborough is ridiculous and untenable.

That is a practical point. I am not a political person and belong to no political party. However, the important point of principle I refer to above is that you are pursuing policies as a Labour Party leader of Scarborough Borough Council that your party is publicly opposed to.

Further, you are in coalition with independent Councillors, none of whom stated in their election campaigns that they would support your policy of suppressing community journalism. Indeed, they are led by regular NYE contributor Councillor Sam Cross.

Siddons’ coalition ally Cllr Sam Cross, Independent Leader, has published in the Enquirer

It seems to me inconsistent and discriminatory that you designate all regular contributors to the NYE as vexatious and prohibit correspondence with them, except Councillor Cross and all the other Labour and Independent Councillors who have written for the NYE.

I have submitted a FOI request to ascertain the costs incurred by SBC in its failed legal action against the Real Whitby Four (Glenn Kipatrick, Nigel Ward, Tim Thorne and myself) which has been ignored and supressed. Why shouldn’t the people of Scarborough and Whitby know how much of their money Scarborough Conservatives spent on this legal action? What possible justification can there be for withholding this information from the public domain?

This is a form of censorship by withholding information the electorate are entitled to know, to prevent embarrassment to the Conservative Councillors and SBC Officers that recommended this course of action. To quote the famous socialist George Bernard Shaw:

“All censorship exists to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executing existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”

A few other quotes which put the divergence between your policy of suppressing legitimate criticism in the context of the Labour Party’s strong support for freedom of the press and freedom of speech, this time from the socialist philosopher George Orwell:

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” 

“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.” 

“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolaton, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

The 1945 Labour Party manifesto which defined your party and led to its most famous election victory stated:

“The Labour Party stands for freedom – for freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the Press. The Labour Party will see to it that we keep and enlarge these freedoms, and that we enjoy again the personal civil liberties we have, of our own free will.”

The Prime Minister Harold Wilson said:

“I get a little nauseated , perhaps when I hear the phrase “freedom of the press” used as freely as it is, knowing that a large part of our proprietorial press is not free at all.”

In my opinion, Harold Wison’s comments are particularly relevant to the NYE because it is run by local people and it provides a free media outlet for local people to express their views.

The Whitby Gazette’s readership is falling and like the Scarborough News, it is owned by Johnston Press. The nearest non-Johnston Press title is the York Press, which seldom covers Whitby or Scarborough.

As more and more local media outlets fold, the trend will be for internet news magazines publishing content sourced from local people and community journalists to fill the vacuum. Because they do not represent the views or interests of big business, this will give a more healthy form of press scrutiny and one which is inevitably more uninhibited.

To give more modern relevance, David Davis MP a modern Conservative politician who is passionately committed to preserving press and individual freedoms had this to say about freedom of the press:

“A truly free press must be able to expose uncomfortable truths, highlight underperforming governmental departments and be a nuisance to the establishment. Journalists must be able to investigate, probe and expose issues of legitimate public concern”.

Inevitably, councils up and down the country will have to develop a different media approach to dealing with internet news magazines like the NYE.

The policy of using a ridiculous pretext to suppress a free press and legitimate criticism that SBC has followed, under both the Conservatives and your leadership, only serves the best interests of some politicians and SBC Officers. It does not serve the best interests of the electorate.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Hicks

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