OPEN LETTER to Cllr Derek BASTIMAN
by TIM HICKS – at a time when the local Johnston Press ‘newspapers’ are in an apparently terminal decline, with the Whitby Gazette reduced to a single staff-member, working from home. Only the North Yorks Enquirer provides detailed and documented scrutiny of Scarborough Borough Council, widely considered corrupt even by some of its own elected members.
Cllr Derek Bastiman
Scarborough Borough Council
St Nicholas Street
Dear Councillor Bastiman,
SBC misuse of RIPA and policy on designating all NYE Contributors as collectively causing distress to Councillors and Council employees
I hope this e mail finds you in good health and not suffering with the weather.
I write in response to the recent letter by Councillor Michelle Donohue-Moncrieff published in the North Yorks Enquirer, in which she alleges that the ‘Leader and Cabinet Members’ Briefing’ from the council’s Communications Officer has crossed the line into party political activity by officers on behalf of the ruling Conservative Group. I would ask that in the interests of openness, accountability and local democracy, you publish a copy of the ‘Leader and Cabinet Members’ Briefing’ in the NYE along with any rebuttal you may want to make, so the electorate can come to its own conclusions.
I would like to raise again, a related issue.
Under your leadership SBC follows a policy that:
“it is the Council’s position that the collective actions and behaviour of persons who contribute to the NYE website are causing and have caused nuisance and distress.”
This passage was obviously drafted by a lawyer and the use of the term “distress” is not accidental. The statutory definition of criminal harassment contained in Section 7 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, specifies that anyone who causes “distress” to another person is committing an offence of harassment. The effect of this policy is that the Council is treating anyone who contributes any article to the NYE in whatever capacity, as committing a criminal offence of harassment of Councillors and Council employees. Thereby bringing all contributors to the NYE within SBC’s powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and criminal prosecution.
SBC has separate processes for dealing with harassment and the Council has a policy on this, which allows for prosecution if necessary. The approach currently adopted by SBC under your leadership is I believe, contrary to that policy. It is also unsupported by any other Council policy or ratification by any Councillor from any other party. It appears to have been implemented covertly by the ruling Conservative party as a group punishment of anyone that has the temerity to use their right of free speech to criticise SBC.
You have consistently refused to comment on this.
The inevitable end result of this is to withhold information from the public domain that the electorate are entitled to know. This supresses lawful scrutiny of the Council and its actions, by local people and community journalists, by withholding information. It is essentially an attack on freedom of speech. After all, if the Council has any concerns about harassment, it should deal with them through the Council’s formal policy on harassment that exists specifically for this purpose.
There is a wider issue here.
The NYE has a policy of allowing local people to write in it and have their views published. Numerous people including seven Councillors from the Labour, Independent and Green Party groups also write in the NYE on a wide range of issues, many unrelated to SBC.
Cllrs Barnett [L], Murphy [I], Cluer [G], Cross [I], Donohue-Moncrieff [I.I], Vesey [G] and Randerson [L]
The presence of a free and independent local press is important and an asset to the Borough. This will on occasion result in SBC being criticised in the local media. I can understand some Councillors and Council Officers resenting this and getting a bit hot under the collar about it. But that is part of life in a free and democratic society. The approach that SBC has adopted of covertly defining anyone that writes for the NYE as being members of a pressure group whose stated aim is to cause nuisance to SBC and to harass Councillors, and Council employees has implications which are deeply concerning.
Inevitably any criticism of SBC implicitly criticises the Conservative party, because it is the ruling political grouping in the Council.
I have previously alleged that this approach has been applied to me because I had a major role in exposing former Conservative Councillor and Mayor of Scarborough – Peter Jaconelli – as a rapist and a paedophile. Which has damaged the political interests and reputation of the Conservative Party in Scarborough. You have not commented on this. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of this, withholding information from journalists restricts their ability to hold SBC to account and serves the political interests of the ruling party. In short, you have a conflict of interest and could appear to be using the Council’s powers for party political purposes. Essentially a similar allegation to the one made by Councillor Donohue-Moncrieff I refer to above.
I would therefore ask that this policy is re-considered independently and that you issue a full and comprehensive response to this email. Again, in the interests of openness, accountability and local democracy, I will arrange for any rebuttal of my views or any comment on this that you or any other Councillor wishes to make, to be published in the NYE.
On a personal note, I am sorry we are still at issue over this and look forward to hearing from you in due course.
Freelance journalist and contributor to the North Yorks Enquirer