Friday 29 December 2017

Press Office news

Interesting rumours were circulating just before Christmas that changes are afoot within the council's notorious press office, a couple of senior staff, including press manager, Debbie Williams are apparently off to pastures new. Various social media postings suggest that the pastures may not be entirely new, and there has been further speculation over the deal which may, or may not, have been on offer. Who knows...maybe they're retiring and the press office is finally being cut down to size. Time will tell.

Incidentally, there has also been some council 'restructuring' and a new 'Media and Marketing' section set up. Restructuring is occasionally used to get rid of rebellious staff or, on the other hand, to provide an opportunity to reward the loyal with promotion, a revolving door or a sidestep elsewhere. Mr James has played this game since his days at Boston...allegedly...

Nothing is ever quite as it seems....

Like any self-respecting tin-pot dictator the chief executive has ensured that he not only has a pliant and obedient legal squad but also a loyal and well resourced propaganda machine. One that can churn out half truths, attack 'enemies of the state', gather 'intelligence' and feed it back to the Presidential Suite. He even added that unique, and illegal clause to the council's constitution to give himself the power to sue anyone, press included, who expressed robust criticism, or tried to take a closer look at County Hall.

As for press releases, anything more controversial than, for instance, changes to bin collections, or the named and shamed litter droppers and fly tippers requires the oversight of the Supreme Leader.

There have been countless (in fact, I've lost count) incidents over the years, reported on this blog, and Cneifiwr's blog, which illustrate how this has all played out, please search both blogs if you wish.

One of the first things on Mr James' 'to do' list on his arrival in 2002 was to accost local editors, unannounced, and explain exactly how 'things would be done'. Very chilling.

With his own Ministry of Truth established at County Hall he set about attacking both the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Guardian for publishing various articles critical of the regime. The tactic was to threaten to withdraw advertising, or threaten to complain to the newspapers' owners - both of which were actually carried out. Blackmail in other words.

In another development, back in 2006, an email which appeared to originate from the press office, urged an internet campaign against those opposing the Stradey development.

In 2012, an advert was pulled from the South Wales Guardian following a mildly critical article concerning some minor developments in Ammanford. All was revealed when an email from Debbie Williams to the council's marketing officer was leaked.
Another example was a phone call from County Hall to a local editor demanding that one of its reporters withdraw a FOI requesting details of senior officer pay.

The SWG incident, and a politically charged attack (another press office tactic) from the then Labour leader Kevin Madge towards Plaid politicians prompted calls, by Plaid, for a council debate on the freedom of the independent press. The Motion was blocked by the chief executive who left it in the capable hands of now retired Cllr Pam Palmer and press manager Debbie Williams to discuss between themselves, behind closed doors. Naturally, they didn't find anything amiss...

In another incident the press manager emailed Mr James after earwigging on a phone conversation between former councillor Sian Caiach to a reporter questioning whether it was wise to believe a word that Mr James said. This conversation, which was only half heard, formed part of a complaint to the ombudsman in 2012 and was duly thrown out.

Throughout this time the council were also expending valuable resources on its own propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News. This seems to have dwindled to a couple of copies a year and the cost burden now falls on other public bodies, ' the Public Service Board' as well as the council.

The former Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon, who described County Hall as a Sicilian cartel, withdrew their funding a few years back saying he'd rather support independent local media. It is not clear whether the new Commissioner has reinstated the payments.

Another sinister incident,in 2012, detailed by Cneifiwr here, concerned the Jason Mohammed BBC Radio programme which featured discussion about the ridiculous security measures imposed upon visitors to the public gallery - the measures were concocted by Mr James after the filming incident in 2011.

Somehow or other the council got wind of the names of the two residents being interviewed and the press office issued an astonishing, but typically paranoid statement, for broadcast, accusing the two pensioners of lying and having an 'agenda'.

The press office was used to the fore during the libel trial in 2013. Not, as you may think, to ensure balanced reporting, nor even to cushion the reputation of the council but simply for the benefit of Mr James.

Ms Williams kindly provided a witness statement for Mr James in which she expressed her distaste for my blog - it wasn't balanced and didn't report on anything positive. This was the pot calling the kettle black, if in reverse. I had also "totally rubbished" one of their in-house style PR awards. She was, she explained, a regular reader of my blog as it was her job to monitor what was said, and, it turned out, pass it on to Mr James. How comforting to know that taxpayer's money is being put to such good use...and still is.

Ms Williams was also involved in the chief executive's letter to the Madaxeman blog which led to the libel case, suggesting the removal of a couple of the more extreme expletives which Mr James had originally decided to include.
Mr James' suggestions that councillors were involved in approving the Madaxeman letter was a lie, he did it all by himself with a little help from his friends; his legal squad and media empire.

Despite the fact that Ms Williams' witness statement was withdrawn (the James' legal team in London decided it was far too risky to put her, or Cllr Ivor Jackson in the witness box) she was there for the duration of the trial, alongside legal Linda and the rest of the Circus from County Hall.

It was interesting to note that in London, away from their fiefdom, County Hall were unable to control press coverage to their usual satisfaction, and The Times leader on the last day of the trial was a corker.

The post-judgement Mark James Victory Parade went on for months with numerous press articles and even a couple of highly charged staff newsletters to all 9000 staff, very classy.. However, things began to deteriorate as it became clear that the Appointed Auditor was on the prowl and wasn't backing down, not even under Mr James' persuasive, erm, charms.

The press office was then used to attack the Auditor and the MP, even demanding that the former retract his 'opinions'.

Sadly the press office chose not to publish photos of Mr James scowling in his potting shed whilst under criminal investigation, if you could call it that, by Gloucestershire police.

During the furore of those libel and pension scandals, in January 2014, calls were made for a review of the Council's Press and Media protocol, it was deftly kicked into the long grass for over a year but during that time the WLGA Governance review included a revision of the press protocol in its recommendations. It said that the council 'will not seek to suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media'. 

The 'revised' protocol eventually emerged, but as I pointed out here, leopards rarely change their spots and given the chief executive's utter contempt for the WLGA Review (it had been prompted by the scandals), the spots remained undisturbed and it was business as usual.

Early in 2016 whilst Mr James was sending in the bailiffs (remember, it was, according to him, a private matter) he made use of the council press office to call me a liar in a statement to the Western Mail. I had said I'd made offers to settle, he said I hadn't. I then sent the proof to the Herald who had picked up on the story. They asked the press office if they were sure the Western Mail statement was entirely accurate? They responded by sending an exact copy of the WM statement. Mr James had been deliberately untruthful, twice, via the publicly funded press office about something he claimed was a 'private matter'.

I could go on and on but rather like Sooty without Sweep, or even half a Krankie, what will Mr James do unless he has a suitable replacements?...or perhaps opportunities in the PR-heavy City Deal could be arranged...coincidentally a 'redeployment opportunity' for a City Deal press manager was recently advertised by the council... It needs a loyal disciple, as the Deal currently seems to be going pear shaped with our Mr James at the helm...

Anyway, let's hope that the chief executive remembers all those who helped him through his darkest hours of libel trials and audit reports....he personally gifted Linda Rees Jones her permanent job and another was promoted to Director a few months before he retired on a final salary pension, one hopes he doesn't forget the others....

I recognise, of course, that the press office has an important job to do and provides a service to inform residents, but there is an element which has been used to defend the indefensible, to threaten the local press and individuals, and has perpetuated, without question, the toxic culture of manipulation, threats, lies and lumpy carpets so favoured by the chief executive.

They may have played his game but he is the one who done the damage to the reputation of the press office and the council as a whole and it is he who has overstayed his welcome, by about 15 years.


towy71 said...

A brilliant piece once again Jacqui, it still astounds me the the Welsh government has not taken a closer look at this, especially as it is similar in scope to the RCT debacle!

Lesley said...

Excellent writing yet again, Jacqui; succinct and to the point. It's extremely instructive to read and be reminded of all the nefarious doings over the years.

I'd forgotten about the Jason Mohammed programme about the ridiculous and hazardous conditions imposed on members of the public who wished to view council meetings from the gallery. I was incensed by the farcical procedure involved and the fact that we were locked in and told that if the building went on fire we had to wait for someone to come and rescue us!

I didn't have "an agenda" then (apart from the battle to keep St Catherine Street open) but I certainly have one now!

Anonymous said...

towy71 The Welsh Government MUST be only too aware of the way that M.James rules Carmarthen County Council and his threats of litigation against anyone who dare to criticise his actions.Obviously the Senned see him as an asset and therefor do NOT have the will to call him to account. The people of Carmarthen that have been victims of the many decisions behind closed doors can only hope that in 2018 the Executive Board of the Council show some moral backbone and collectively demand a full and indeed Public Enquiry into the way that M.James controls the council. Perhaps too many of them feel a misplaced sense of loyalty to him and have no wish to rock this seemingly indestructible craft. True democracy and transparency MUST return to this Council if full public confidence is to return.