Monday, 12 March 2012

Cornwall Council employs twitter spies to monitor what is being said about the Leader - UPDATED

Cornwall Council has confirmed to me that they are using taxpayers' money to 'spy' on opposition councillors and what they are saying online about Leader Alec Robertson. At least one of the officers who has been given this task works in the Cabinet Office directly for the Leader.

At a cabinet meeting a couple of months ago, Cllr Robertson read out a number of twitter posts critical of his decision to be absent from a cabinet discussion on child safeguarding in favour of lobbying a local government magazine which had shortlisted Cornwall Council for an award. He then attempted to ban the use of twitter in meetings.

The Council issued a statement saying that the tweets were "brought to the attention of the leader" so I asked who had done so. Finally - two months later and at 6pm on a Friday evening - the Council has admitted that a relatively junior officer in the Cabinet Office was tasked with following what was being said about the Leader.

Why is this important? Well, it seems to speak to the increasing level of paranoia that has invaded the top floor bunker at County Hall. That they should be using officers who have other jobs to do simply to find out what is being said about the Leader seems like a waste of taxpayers' money. This wasn't someone from the communications team who might be expected to keep an eye on what is said about the council as a whole, but someone whose usual job is as the cabinet's office manager - organising their diaries and managing their correspondence.

At the same time, the Council is conducting a survey of members about whether they want a debate to discuss a possible ban on twitter and other social media during meetings. It seems that the desire to introduce censorship is still very real.

I'm astonished, but frankly not surprised, that Alec Robertson should be diverting public money to spy on what opposition councillors are saying about him.

Everything on twitter is in the public domain - if Alec wants to know what is being said about him, he just needs to log on and read for himself. What he shouldn't be doing is using council staff and seeking to censor what his political opponents are saying.

I am concerned that we appear to have a Leader who has taken his eye off the ball. Instead of concentrating on providing the best services for Cornwall, he is too busy trying to win obscure local government magazine awards and ban dissent. It's as if he wants to turn Cornwall into North Korea.

UPDATE - Newspaper coverage here and here.

UPDATE 2 - Cornwall Council has responded to say:
"It is nonsensical to say Council is using (Twitter) to spy on anyone."
Ok - So why did Head of Policy and Communications Carole Theobald say just that in her email to me?

and
"concerns as to content of some posts made on Twitter by councillors"
So they admit to wanting to censor what we say?

UPDATE 3 - The Independent has published the story including more of what Cornwall Council said in its statement. I think we can label this particular spin as mendacious twaddle. Claims that Cornwall Council doesn't want to ban twitter in its meetings and isn't seeking to censor councillors ignores the fact that this is exactly what the Leader did two months ago and they want to hold a debate to reinstate a ban in two weeks time. And as for the claim that no officer time or taxpayers' money is spent on it - they ignore the fact that it was officers who sought to uphold the Leader's ban.

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