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July 18, 2017

THE Crown Prosecution Service has dropped a charge against blogger Jacqui Thompson for “criminal harassment” of Carmarthenshire County Council chief executive Mr Mark James
The problem, or problems, I have with this compelling, absolutely key case for free speech and democracy is this: Is Jacqui a journalist or a politician?
A blogger is a very vulnerable fish swimming alone outside any protective and nourishing shoal and very often politically motivated, mischievous and hopelessly ill-informed about the law. Great reading, which we would never have been able to access before the internet, but often full of holes, glaring errors and accusations which might or might not be backed up by verifiable facts and more than one trusted source (exemplified best in the frequently vicious and threatening abuse emitted on Twitter and Facebook by millions of desktop publishers).
However, her determined and energetic campaign is hugely valuable because it has cast a light on the issue of just how transparent and accountable local councils are. Not at all, it would appear from this case.
She apparently started her blog after being denied planning permission by Carmarthenshire County Council (meaning that she was aggrieved and motivated against the council at the outset). I have subsequently learnt that she serves as a local councillor, too, but not for the county council.
Her full-on criticisms of the council and the way they do business are refreshingly forthright and frank and go against practically everything a trainee journalist would be taught, with direct accusations of corruption and dodgy dealing by officers (which, of course, is why Mark James – named Shit of the Year by Private Eye – successfully sued for libel with a law lord condemning Jacqui at the High Court).
Jacqui accused him of something she had no evidence he had done and is now having to pay him monthly for the rest of her life as an alternative to losing her house
She continues with her blog, however, and continues to claim that Mr James is now harassing her and not the other way around. She also claims that the council itself has broken rules by working on Mr James’s behalf and misspending money.
She was ejected from the council chamber and arrested by police when she tried to film proceedings on her mobile phone and stubbornly continues to assert her rights as a citizen to attend meetings and report on them in her own inimitable way. Many people support her and one has started another blog chronicling the activities of Gwynedd County Council.
My understanding is that there is no difference between the rights of a journalist and a member of the public.
The main difference is that journalists qualify in media law and have access to expert legal advice which naturally tends to take a conservative stance to avoid costly legal proceedings.
The key difference though, I have come to realise, is that the journalists have a “relationship” with the movers and shakers which far too often compromises them. They aspire to be part of the elevated, comfortably off middle-class morally certain high ground and soon learn that the worst possible way of raising and not falling in polite society is to upset those in power.
Why risk offending someone who might get you into that swish golf club or mention you favourably at interview when that fantastic job comes up?
When I attended council meetings, what I couldn’t report was far more important to me than what I could. Any mistakes in matters of fact could cost my employer a lot of money, so I naturally took a cautious approach as, broadly, I do in all my writing. When I was told that the councillors and their officers had to consider issues “in camera” – public and press banned – I accepted it and left the chamber.
When a councillor said that some direction, decision or approach was in the “public interest” and best for the community, I tended to accept it rather than challenge it.
That approach was something I was taught to do and because I operated in an insecure environment and never felt confident in my managers (Watergate reporter Bob Woodward once said that good reporting was always done in defiance of management) I accepted far more than I challenged as a survival strategy.
Little personally was at stake for me in those heady days of full employment and no internet.
Established community journalism is rapidly dying a long, slow and painful death and councils and governments have quickly grasped that they can write the news themselves now. They publish their own “news” sheets and official material on their websites often reporting court cases where the council has prosecuted offenders, they rarely have established journalists even in attendance at meetings and are rarely challenged by them. They now carefully police the radically contrary views of citizens like Jacqui Thompson.
This new breed of citizen journalists or bloggers may now be our only hope.
I think we need to know exactly why the CPS has dropped this criminal case against Jacqui at the very least.
Published attacks must always be part and parcel of a healthy, open democracy.
Politicians and officials complaining about that is like sailors complaining about high waves at sea.
Very annoying and sometimes sickening – but hardly harassment.

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