21 Feb 2013

Blogger’s legal fight shines light on council transparency

She was arrested for filming a council meeting – the situation escalated and now she’s in a high court libel trial. But citizen journalist Jacqui Thompson says she will still fight for transparency.

Jacqui Thompson is in a legal struggle with her local council (Getty)

It’s a David and Goliath case which lays bare the challenges – and, some would say, the importance – of citizen journalism.

LLandwrda resident Jacqui Thompson is a blogger who writes about her local authority, Carmarthenshire County Council. She says she just wants to raise awareness of what’s happening in local government – but she has been locked in a legal struggle with the council authorities over her work for much of the last 18 months.

Back in 2011, Mrs Thompson was ejected from a council meeting and arrested when she refused to stop filming for a report on her blog. She says there is nothing in the council rules which indicates that she cannot film – but the council disagreed.

Unimpressed with her treatment, she wrote a blog about the incident. In response, council chief executive Mark James wrote her a letter. Mrs Thompson sued him for libel over the contents of the letter; in response, Mr James counter-sued over what was written in some of Mrs Thompson’s blogs.

Councils should not be trying to suppress democratic freedom of expression. Eric Pickles MP

The case was heard in the high court this week, ending yesterday with a reserved judgement. The judge will make his final ruling in the coming weeks, but ahead of that Channel 4 News spoke to Mrs Thompson, who said the case will not kill off her blog whatever happens.

“You should absolutely be allowed to film council meetings. I’ve never been able to see quite what the problem is – it’s a public place, a public meeting, discussing spending public money,” she said.

But she says she doesn’t see herself as a champion of citizen journalists.

“I’m just doing what I’ve been doing for the past few years. There’s a county council meeting next week where they are going to discuss the budget, and I’ll go along. Hopefully it’s encouraged other people to take an interest,” she said.

A spokesman for the council declined to comment, saying only that it respected the judge’s decision to reserve judgement and it was “inappropriate” to comment further.


But the case has caused quite a legal stir, even generating its own hashtag of #daftarrest, because of the potential wider implications for transparency in local government.

Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, added his voice yesterday on Twitter, pointing out that in 2012, the coalition government changed the law to allow citizens to report, tweet and film council meetings in England. Councils can interpret this differently across England, but Mr Pickles said the Labour government in Wales has not even begun to open up meetings in the same way.

“It is disappointing that the Welsh government has not followed through and also given local residents such rights in Wales,” he told Channel 4 News.

“In my personal view, this arrest and legal action by the council has been a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. Councils should not be trying to suppress democratic freedom of expression.”

There’s another level of irony in the case because Mr James’s legal fees are being funded by the council. As a council taxpayer, effectively Mrs Thompson is therefore contributing to the pot of money which is being used to sue her.

Some have suggested this is a worrying precedent. In court, Mrs Thompson’s lawyers said her case was one of “state versus citizen”.

There is no law against individual councillors or executives suing people for libel, although Mrs Thompson believes that Carmarthenshire is one of the only local authorities in the UK which funds such cases.

Who can sue?

Public authorities themselves cannot sue for defamation in England and Wales. However, recent legal advice to Rutland County Council suggested that new laws may have changed this.

While Rutland council chose not to go down this route, leading legal blogger David Allen Green was concerned about the implications.

Writing in The New Statesman, he said: “Being able to sue for libel (and thereby threaten to sue for libel) would have an unwelcome “chilling effect” on public criticism of governmental bodies.”

But Mrs Thompson believes there is no need for such a battle. Transparency would be better for everyone – local government and the public alike.

“At your local council, decisions are being made which affect every aspect of your life so use the freedom of information act, go to meetings, I’d encourage councils to webcast, and people to go out and vote,” she said.

“Councils should open up as much as they can and that would be to everybody’s benefit.”