We will not be intimidated

Founding members of the Alliance...

We will not be intimidated

14th August 2019

Read our editorial comment over the concerning personal attacks on social media against those in favour of Calverley Square development.

THIS newspaper has, along with many others, been deeply concerned over the past several months about personal attacks on social media against individuals who might be in favour of the planned Calverley Square development.

Opposing the idea of a new theatre and civic complex is the sole reason for the creation of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance political party, which in May won seats on the borough council.

The Alliance leader on the council is Nick Pope. The party’s chairman is Robert Chris. Both have vested interests in Calverley Square.

Cllr Pope’s wife bought a nearby apartment when he knew about the planned development. Mr Chris late bought a fl at in the same block.

Cllr Pope is most prolific on social media, generating 67,000 tweets to date – more than President Trump at 43,000. He has also posted details of Tory councillors he plans to target in the next elections if they vote the wrong way, ie. in favour of Calverley Square.

Mr Chris hijacked a meeting of the borough council last month when he spoke seven times from the pubIic gallery and shouted comments at a member speaking in favour of Calverley Square. He also issued a press release claiming the council owned a share of the police station site. Kent Police, theLand Registry and the borough council say that’s untrue.

Against this background the Times has been looking at trolling on social media and fake news. As part of that investigation Chief Reporter Richard Williams sent Mr Chris an email with relevant questions. Instead of replying, Mr Chris handed it to one of his online activists, named in the email, who immediately posted it on social media. Within hours there had been more than 100 comments on Facebook and Twitter about Richard Williams. Not all were complimentary. One used the word ‘vile’ and suggested Richard Williams was ‘rather dim’.

The National Union of Journalists told the Times: “It is simply not acceptable for a journalist to be harassed because of their job. “Politicians are supposed to be accountable to the community they serve and should therefore answer questions put to them by local journalists.”

When freedom of speech enables you to establish a new political party thenthat’s great and as it should be. But with that comes a level of responsibility that you have to accept. Passing on a media inquiry without restrictions on its use is a blatant breach of accepted protocol by the Chair of a political party, and can only be interpreted as an attempt, by whichever route, to intimidate.

Alliance supporters have also suggested that both readers and advertisers boycott this newspaper. Presumably another attempt to intimidate.

This Times, though, will not be intimidated.

And by the way, those questions we put to Robert Chris remain unanswered.

The National Union of Journalists has this week warned that online abuse of reporters has become a major issue.

It was responding to the leaking of an email that was sent as a media query from the Chief Reporter of the Times, Richard Williams, to the chairman of a local political party – Robert Chris of Tunbridge Wells Alliance.

The party was established with a single remit, to stop the building of the council’s £90million Calverley Square project that includes a theatre and civic complex. Plans to develop it on the edge of Calverley Grounds have been halted after the Tories lost overall control of the borough council in May.

Alliance supporters are critical, particularly on social media, of anyone who speaks out in favour of Calverley Square.

The email to Robert Chris, who lives next door to the proposed site, was part of an ongoing investigation into abuse on social media and fake news. It was later posted online and lead to more than 100 tweets and Facebook comments being critical of Richard Williams.

A spokesperson for the NUJ said this type of online abuse has become a major issue for journalists.

She told the Times: “It is simply not acceptable for a journalist to be harassed because of their job.

“Politicians are supposed to be accountable to the community they serve and should therefore answer questions put to them by local journalists.”

She added that posting details such as phone numbers online without permission was also a breach of data protection.

"Those responsible must take down the information from social media,” she insisted.

This was the original email that Chief Reporter Richard Willams sent to Alliance Chair Robert Chris…

 Hi Robert, just got a few quick of questions I hope you wouldn’t mind answering.

Do you personally supply/highlight public domain council documents you think would make good political arguments for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance to the anonymous Twitter account @Twellsense run by, among other people, Francis Harris?

Does Francis Harris work for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance in any official or unofficial capacity, such as writing press releases, writing leaflets or anything else construed as political activism on behalf of the party?

Was Francis Harris [or anybody else] operating the Twellsense account in co-operation with the Tunbridge Wells Alliance during the registration period (6 weeks prior) to the last local election? 

The social media ‘trolling’ of Richard Williams led to this Open Letter being sent to Robert Chris from Richard Williams…

Dr Chris, as discussed on the phone, I am extremely disappointed that you, in your capacity as Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, decided to leak correspondence between ourselves to a third party and allowed its publication online, in what I can only assume is either a deliberate act to intimidate a journalist to prevent him asking questions, or an act of wilful ignorance.

Regardless, the consequence is the same.

My questions to you, a registered political party, were an attempt to establish that underhand online activities are or are not being used in the process of our democracy and elections. Your actions have now answered that question.

Publication of this email online is a reprehensible tort between the relationship between a journalist and a point of contact at a political party. Whether you did or didn’t intend the outcome of this to encourage social media ‘dog piling’ [coordinating abuse against political opponents]  or ‘trolling’ [creating discord on the internet] - tactics that the Tunbridge Wells Alliance has been accused of before – especially in the hounding of female councillors – is immaterial. You do not have the defence of ignorance.

Because of this, while you continue to be Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, I will no longer be able to accept, ask for, or receive any comment or statement from you. This means as a political party, you have vetoed your right to reply on any political story written by me, whether it concerns the Tunbridge Wells Alliance or not.

As I informed you on the phone, while you may not like the editorial line of the newspaper I work for, or like what we write, we have a free press in this country, and attempts to disrupt that will always be fought. All political parties, whether in governance or not, need to be held to account. Yours is no different. Due to your actions, I feel this is no longer possible while you remain chairman.

A copy of this letter has been forwarded to the National Union of Journalists, as well as representatives of all political parties in Tunbridge Wells.

Kind regards

This is the response to that letter…

Dear Richard

You sent me an email asking three questions all related to Francis Harris. It is entirely reasonable that I referred them to him to ensure an accurate response.

Your email contained no sensitive information and there was nothing in it to suggest that it was in any way privileged.

That Francis chose to make your email public is a matter for him.

Regards

Robert Chris

Chairman

Robert Chris has so far still not answered the original questions…

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