CARDIFF EAST EXCLUSIVE: John Dixon reflects on new media’s role in ‘Stupidgate’

John Dixon’s post has captured your imaginations. Read the South Wales Echo’s coverage of Councillor’s Dixon’s exclusive post for Cardiff East. Your Cardiff reports that Councillor Dixon will appear before Cardiff Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee in September.

In a post written exclusively for CARDIFF EAST Councillor John Dixon reflects on the week he became the centre of a national media story. The Liberal Democrat Councillor for Adamsdown first elected to Cardiff Council in 1999, sits on the Council’s Executive and is responsible for Health, Social and Wellbeing.

This week I feel like I now know what it’s like for a star to go nova – for my life to suddenly explode (generating a lot of heat, and hopefully some light too), before gradually returning to normal again.

This week I learned the power of social media, and possibly glimpsed the future democratisation of news.”

Councillor John Dixon in an exclusive guest post for Cardiff East examines the impact of new media and what it might mean for Cardiff's councillors.

It started fairly normally – a Monday like any other. During the day, David James called from the Echo. I guess it was a fairly slow news day, as he wanted to chat to me about a rather old complaint which the Ombudsman was investigating – a Tweet I posted while in London last May on Tottenham Court Road, which said “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a ‘church’ on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

I gave him the details but, because the case hadn’t yet been heard by the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, at the time, thought it best not to comment. What can I say? I like a quiet life.

My first weird moment came the following morning. I checked Twitter and noticed that Tom Harris MP had retweeted my post. I thought he must have just stumbled across it, and found it funny.”

Then I noticed that other people had done the same. Quite a lot of people. And that there was a hashtag – #stupidscientology – that was trending on Twitter. At that point the day job kicked in and I had to get to a meeting in Barry at 11am.

I can honestly say that I didn’t really understand what was happening. I don’t think I did until we finished at about 1pm and I found 500 emails notifying me that people had started following my Twitter account, and I had about a dozen missed messages, from various news services of the BBC, ITV, the Telegraph and Guardian. And that’s the point when I realised something was up.

Looking at what was happening on Twitter, it was a bit like finding yourself watching some elemental force of nature – compelling, a bit scary, and completely uncontrollable.”

Later I found out it had all been started by someone who I’d been following for over a year – a blogger called Jack of Kent, who was involved in defending Simon Singh from the British Chiropractic Association. He’d been emailed the link to the story on the Wales Online website, did a little cross-checking, and sent the original #stupidscientology Tweets.

I thought Newsnight – who asked for me to agree to talk to them exclusively (something I regret in hindsight) – then completely missed the main point of the story when I appeared. My case, and my circumstances, while obviously important to me, had only warranted a quarter page in the Echo, yet there I was talking to Kirsty Wark.”

I was appearing there, not because my story was thought particularly important by their editors by comparison with other events of the day, I was there because Twitter users had made it important.

Ten years ago, it just wouldn’t have happened. Five years ago it wouldn’t have happened. A story about a minor complaint made about a local councillor in Cardiff would have just stayed inside the pages of the the local daily. On the day that, surely, was the story?”

And now Twitter has moved on. Life is gradually returning to normal, apart from a few Skeptics in the Pub events (including the inaugural WalesSITP meeting) on the horizon. And I’ve got a dinner party story that’s going to be hard to top.

One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is “Do I regret it?”

Well, I’ve got to talk with Jack of Kent, one of the toppest blokes drawing breath today. I now know that I’m not the only one who can’t understand why the complaint has got as far as it has. And, according to Ed Walker from Media Wales, their web page with the story on got sort of traffic normally reserved for stories about Charlotte Church.

But mostly a lot of people had the chance to talk about what Mr Justice Latey described as a “corrupt, sinister and dangerous” organisation and free speech.

What’s to regret about that?

Councillor John Dixon is on Twitter @JohnLDixon where he tweets in a personal capacity. Whilst if you only wish to follow his council related tweets then follow @CllrJohnDixon.

Read a guest post by Councillor Dixon on the #stupidscientology saga at the Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats site.

Read Jack of Kent’s explanation of the meaning of #StupidScientology.

Comedian David Mitchell references Councillor John Dixon in his weekly column for the Observer.

Guardian Cardiff’s coverage of ‘Stupidgate’ – “Councillor faces inquiry over tweet calling Church of Scientology ‘stupid'”

Your Cardiff’s coverage of ‘Stupidgate’ – “Comedians join debate about councillor’s Scientology tweet”“Look before you tweet…”

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3 Responses

  1. stupid cult.

  2. Enjoyable piece. Glad to know life is settling down for John Dixon. I agree with him wholeheartedly about JoK and Newsnight approach. Excellent conclusion.

  3. I notice that John barely mentions the issue of the right of free speech in connection with the Councillors Code of Conduct and for me this is a fundamental point.

    The Councillors Code of Conduct (or at least the way clauses of it are being interpreted by the Local Government Ombudsman), threatens to undermine local politicians’ willingness to enter into debate on important issues.

    The Code requires Councillors to: “Show respect and consideration for others” (clause 4b) and “Not to bully or harass any person” (Clause 4c), “Not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute” (Clause 6. 1a).

    These are laudable clauses but the Ombudsmans treatment and conclusions on two complaints against Cardiff Councillors are in my opinion indicators of an overly fundamentalist approach to what consititutes a lack of respect and harassment. This approach threatens to prevent Councillors from freely entering into political debates on issues where others hold strong opinions or different perspectives.

    Even the tone of Councillors comments might get them into trouble. Last week a Lib Dem Councillor responded to a letter in the Echo. He implied that the author was disrespectful to the student population of Cardiff and he administered a fairly forthright “slap on the wrist”. I believe his letter provides grounds for a complaint from the person he criticised, yet in many ways his tone and the content of his letter was little different from that seen regularly in Viewpoints.

    If a complaint was lodged against him, even if ultimately the Ombudsman decided not to pursue the matter, Simon would have a worrying time until the decision was reached.

    John Dixon’s case is very enlightening. The Ombudsman appears to have concluded that he showed a lack of respect for people by expressing a less than flattering opinion of a religion. I have to be very careful about giving my opinion on the substance of John’s views about Scientology if I am to avoid a similar complaint against me but I believe everyone and especially elected representatives should be able to express any view they have, no matter how unflattering, about a religion, belief or political position without that being interpreted as showing a lack of respect for people.

    If it is the case that a Councillor is showing a lack of respect for members of the Church of Scientology when they imply the religion is stupid, then is it not also the case that you show a lack of respect for Liberal Democrats if you describe one of their party’s policies as “stupid”? Is the word “stupid” to be banned for ever from Council chambers in Wales?

    I see a huge distinction between a religion, political party, gardening club or whatever and its actual members. I cannot accept that in considering the merits of religious beliefs (the existence of god/s and heaven or valhalla), entering into debate over such issues as forced marriage, halal slaughter, sex before marriage, witchcraft and the role of religion in sustaining armed conflict etc., that I should constantly risk subjection to a protracted investigation because one person finds my views offensive, threatening to their beliefs or simply disagrees with them.

    If John Dixon had tweeted that he had just bumped into a particular member of the Church of Scientology and hurried off before the “stupid rubbed off”, I would conclude that the comment did not show respect for the individual (I wouldn’t then necessarily regard it as worthy of consideration as a potential breach of the Code of Conduct but I would at least be able to understand why the Ombudsman investigated the complaint).

    One of the big problems with the Code of Conduct is that it applies to a Councillor 24/7, in their private life as much as in their capacity as an elected representative. There are good reasons for this which I do understand but where this applies to the expression of opinion and certain behaviour, I find myself regarding it as an unacceptable intrusion into my life.

    As far as I am aware no saints sit in Council Chambers, we are all humans and come with human failings. Things are said, often in the heat of the moment by everyone at some time or another, that do not meet the highest expectations of the Code of Conduct and will certainly conflict with the current Ombudsmans interpretation of its clauses.

    Councillors in Wales are elected (often by thousands of people every four years), the proceedures for dealing with breaches of the Code of Conduct mean that for merely expressing a view perceived as disrespectful a committee of unelected individuals can suspend or disqualify a Councillor from office. I regard this as an insult to the electors, it suggests that their collective opinions are less important than those of the members of an appointed Committee.

    There are other aspects to this debate as well. Recently the Local Government Ombudsman determined that a leading member of Cardiff County Council had breached the Code of Conduct by calling a member of the public a “liar” at a public meeting. I agree that calling a specific individual a liar does not show respect for that individual. The Ombudsman however concluded that because there was some controversial behaviour on both sides no action would be taken.

    I find this an extraordinary decision, especially as in considering the context in which a comment was made to be a pertinent matter, the Ombudsman should be consistent and always consider the context. This does not appear to have been done in every case that has come before the Ombudsman. More importantly calling an individual a liar is clearly disrespectful to that individual whilst John Dixon’s reference is clearly not aimed at an individual.

    More worryingly Councillors are becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities to damage oponents offered by the Code of Conduct and I predict in these times of financial restraint increasing expenditure by the Local Government Ombudsman in the pursuit of complaints that amount to little more than someone claiming that they have been offended by a Councillor’s comments.

    Earlier this year, immediately after the General Election we were treated to Malcolm Rifkind’s comments that Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg were acting in a way that made them members of the “Robert Mugabe school of politics”, around the same time David Blunkett described the Lib Dems as “Whores”. These are just a tiny fraction of the comments that national politicians make about each other, each other’s parties and indeed about everything else in general.

    Whilst I do not approve of some things said by MPs and AMs, I would certainly not wish to see imposed upon them a Code of Conduct that would effectively bar entry into Parliament and Assembly the many characters who have both enlivened and some times dismayed me with their rhetoric.

    That brings me to Clause 4c of the Code of Conduct “not use bullying behaviour or harass any person”. This is of significance to me because I am currently facing the next stage of a complaint in which the Ombudsman has concluded that I have racially harassed another member of the Council. In the Ombudsmans terms harassment amounts to “unwanted behaviour”. The unwanted behaviour that I have committed in the Ombudsmans view is the repetition of language that a leading Member of the Council says he finds offensive because of his race.

    Of course my choice of language had absolutely nothing to do with race (no race was mentioned) and had everything to do with the context in which my comments were made. Nor did my language relate to the individual but to a whole political group and in fact two political groups. But as I have explained the Ombudsman seems content to regard negative comments about a religion or group as a demonstration of a lack of respect for people. It is sufficient then that having been told language of this nature was offensive on racial grounds to an individual for him to conclude that when I used the language in reference to a group of people, that I did so specifically to attack the one individual. Frankly, I find that conclusion alarming and it threatens to restrain Councillors’ in debate on a wide variety of issues not just in the Council chamber but in their private life too.

    Personally, I believe if Councillors meekly accept this Code of Conduct (or more accurately, the current approach to interpretating its clauses on respecting people), there will, overtime be increasing pressure for something similar to be introduced in Parliament and Assembly. In fact being by nature something of a conspiracy theorist (stupid I know – am I allowed to describe myself as stupid?), I believe there is amongst senior public servants a growing desire for such a Code of Conduct to be imposed on politicians at all levels, not primarilly to reduce corruption but rather to control politicians themselves.

    The Councillors Code of Conduct was introduced by the last Labour Government, it was at least in part envisaged as a means to limit the rare excesses of a few rogue Councillors. In Wales it has become a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

    Between its introduction eight years ago and 2008 there were very few complaints that went very far. Indeed some very clear breaches of the Code of Conduct went unpunished. Since the appointment of the new Ombudsman the numbers of complaints investigated has sky-rocketed. Who lowered the threshold under which an investigation was initiated? Who authorised this and when was the decision made?

    Recently, I likened the treatment I have experienced as “an inquisition without the thumbscrews”. I dare not say “Spanish Inquisition” for fear of attracting a complaint from a Roman Catholic or a Spaniard. The Spanish Inquisition was in part an attack on freedom of expression, depending on your point of view, it was a cruel and backward looking attempt to sustain human ignorance, or a resoundingly successful method for sustaining Roman Catholicism in Spain. Whatever view one holds it did much to prevent people speaking their minds.

    The Code of Conduct threatens to make Councillors like myself not only think twice about what they say and how they say but more importantly whether to say it at all.

    I serve the Trowbridge and St. Mellons Community in east Cardiff as a Councillor. Residents here call a spade a spade and say it the way they see it. They expect their elected representatives to do likewise. Sadly, these days I feel I cannot say what I think.

    Councillor Ralph Cook

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