Spygate to Slimegate: Herald resurrects Smith’s role in Oban FM removing presenter George Berry

Today’s edition of The Herald sees Oban journalist Moira Kerr resurrect the story of Jo Smith, Argyll and Bute Council’s Communications Manager intervening – successfully – to pressure community radio station, Oban FM to remove a volunteer presenter from his job.

It comes as the discredited Communications Office at the council issued the following statement:

‘” Referring to the recent allegations regarding the covert use of social media, Argyll and Bute Council leader Councillor Dick Walsh said: ‘These are serious allegations into which a thorough investigation has been launched.

‘I would like to categorically state that this organisation has never, and would never, condone the sort of practice around which the allegations centre.

‘I will of course be seeking regular updates on the progress of the investigation and await its outcome with interest.’ ”

Much of this seems a little premature since there has not yet been any announcement as to who is to lead the investigation – but we note with alarm that Councillor Walsh does not now describe it as ‘independent’. If it is to be independent, it is not the council who would be ‘launching it’.

Nor has there been any announcement on exactly how wide or how narrow will be the investigation’s terms of reference, or to whom it will report.

Jo Smith and George Berry

A persistent critic of Argyll and Bute Council, Mr Berry, in a culture now nationally known to be paranoid, had had his card marked.

The heart of the story is that after one particularly provocative programme, Ms Smith, acting in the council’s interests as they and she see it, intervened to have Mr Berry removed from his job at Oban FM.

The circumstances surrounding the end of his programme and of his job with the station  have always  been serious but are not, as the Herald article claims, ‘new allegations’.

For Argyll carried a detailed story on 11th August 2011 on this genuinely nasty affair and published a leaked email which proved Ms Smith’s culpability. It showed by inference that, once the presenter in question, George Berry, had gone, Ms Smith was offering better collaboration from the council with the station. It was clear what the threat had been.

Whether responsibility lies with  the journalist or The Herald, the piece oddly, does not complete a sentence from Ms Smith’s email quoted in the article. Yet the missing section is critical. It demonstrates the nature of the stick-and-carrot game this unprincipled operative had played with the radio station.

The email shows Ms Smith thanking Oban FM’s Advertising Manager who, coincidentally (?), she had chosen to work through to have Mr Berry removed. His role too sheds light upon the nature of the threats brought to bear.

In the email, she thanks the Advertising Manager, Alan Campbell, for phoning her with the news that Berry had gone – or as she put it with a delicacy that belied the brutality of her intervention, ‘now that the Sunday programme has a new presenter’.

The Herald quotes her going on to say only: ‘Thanks again for all of your help on this one. I’m sorry if we caused you extra work.’

Why so coy?

That second sentence is incomplete and, in poor journalistic practice, is not shown to be so.

The full sentence is as follows: ‘Thanks again for all of your help on this one. I’m sorry if we caused you extra work and look forward to working with the station more closely in the future.’ (Ed: Oor emphasis.)

Had the Council not been content to see a critic silenced, had it not actually or implicitly let Ms Smith know that such bullying was unacceptable in its corporate culture, it would have investigated this matter and Ms Smith would have been long gone before she had the manoeuvering room to do the damage to the council’s reputation that she has now effected.

We also carried a second story on the haunting of George Berry a few days later, on 15th August 2011. This revealed that since his removal from Oban FM, an approach had been made to his employer at his paid part-time job. This approach was made by an individual trying to get Mr Berry sacked from the job in which he earns his living.

We understand that this approach was based on the same grounds of the unvarnished criticisms of the council in the same radio programme for which Ms Smith had already had him removed as a presenter.

‘Job done?’

The Herald article also missed the key current point about this incident, Ms Smith’s role in it and her attitude to her job.

In the same powerpoint presentation she used at the September 2011 conference in which she revealed the online ‘Spy Accounts’ she had operated in the council’s interest, Slide 6 has a tale to tell.

In an address focused largely on dealing with negatives, Slide 6 carries a header, ‘It shouldn’t happen to a council’. The slide contains extracts from three articles of For Argyll’s – a cartoon, a piece on the cutting of services to society’s most vulnerable and one from our story of 11th August 2011 on her own role in having George Berry removed from his job at Oban FM.

Far from being ashamed of what she did in the George Berry affair, Jo Smith has virtually been boasting of it amongst her peers. She has also been careless of the names of those she differently damaged – re-publicising the names of Alan Campbell, Oban FM’s Advertising Manager, in what can hardly have been his most glorious professional moment; and George Berry himself, carelessly rubbing his nose in it before a new audience.

The slides that follow this one in the presentation carry analysis and actions arising from such critical articles:

  • a flow chart to guide decision taking on whether and how to intervene on critical media stories (Slide 7);
  • and the two slides (Slides 8 and 9) listing what she had in place nine months after the critical offences in the For Argyll material. It is this list of reactions and strategies (on Slide 9) that contains the now infamous item:’Spy’ Accounts.

Gerge Berry’s response

George Berry – still hurt and angry at what was done to him and infuriated by the loose use of his name which he had seen on Ms Smith’s powerpoint presentation when we published it, has himself issued a statement tonight:

‘It is with amazement that I read tonight that the leader of Argyll & Bute Council, Mr Dick Walsh, in a press release, made a statement of denial regarding the covert use of social media.

‘During a presentation in Glasgow Ms Jo Smith declared that this was exactly the type of operation she was taking part in.

‘On frame 6 of her presentation she used a copy of an email naming me, George Berry, as part of what this dirty, underhanded, low-down outfit does.

‘My name was publicised without my knowledge or consent, which I believe to be illegal.

‘During my time as a presenter of the Sunday morning magazine programme on Oban FM the facts we aired were thoroughly checked.

‘The issues brought up in the programme that got me forced to leave the station related to one of the councillors who allowed his wife to use his parking permit in a council car park are true. The matter was brought to my attention by council employees who had to pay to park. They cannot come forward publicly for fear of their jobs.

‘Strangely enough, I have had to pay the price for this programme by resigning:

  1. Because a piece of recording equipment broke down leaving me without a copy of the programme for anyone who wished to request it. This was not my fault.
  2. Because a councillor, who remains anonymous, sent an email to Oban FM complaining about this programme. Argyll & Bute council do not want to name that councillor.

‘Jo Smith worked along with this councillor in question.  Mr Walsh denies all this, he allegedly didn’t know anything about it.

‘If Mr Walsh does not know anything about the parking permit issue, why, as a public servant and council leader, does he not see it as his duty to find out who the person is, allow the council employees who saw the incident to tell their story to him without fear of losing their jobs now or later  – and name and shame the councillor involved.

‘All he has to do to gain this information is to question Ms Smith and to talk to me.

‘Or is it a simple case that as council leader he is not aware of what is going on around him?  In other words, he is not in control.  If that is the case I suggest he looks very carefully at his position. If he can’t do the job,  he should not stand for it again in May.

‘Let’s move this council along in May with transparency, truth and humility.’

Collateral damage

Mr Berry’s anger is still clearly raw, too raw to play it cool about the loss of a job he loved – but he is a known victim in one ‘job’ where Ms Smith’s involvement was documented. It would be naive to imagine that anyone will ever know how many were victims of whatever the ‘Spy Accounts’ were really doing.

Some things are certain:

  • Ms Smthi should have been sacked for her deliberate leverage in forcing George Berry’s departure from Oban FM. It cannot be acceptable for a local authority – for which we pay – to have a man sacked from his job simply because he is a persistent critic. This is supposed to be a democratic society and we are supposed to have freedom of speech.
  • The action taken against Mr Berry made sure that the council employees who reported the alleged parking offence to him would never dare to admit who they were. The council had killed their token admiral.
  • The council’s reputation for probity, already damaged severely in the school closures affair,  is now irreparable. At the very least, the ethos within Kilmory allowed Ms Smith to believe that she was acting in attunement with it, acting as the council would wish her to act. What employee, beyond a saboteur, acts on any other precept?
  • The council’s entire communications operation is now tarnished. Who will ever know what else they have been doling or how many of them have been at it?

The George Berry affair shows beyond defence that this is a council that does not wish to know, that actively  chooses not to know what is going on.

This is what allows Councillor Walsh to claim, as he has done tonight, that he knows nothing.

But the George Berry cballenge makes it plain that it remains at Councillor Walsh’s disposal to investigate the issue for which, at the council’s hands,  he lost his job at Oban FM.

If Councillor Walsh was doing his job properly, he would long ago have investigated this matter without fear or favour. If Councilllor Walsh wants the public to believe that he is doing his job properly, he will at last take the opportunity to investigate the matter in the way Mr Berry has described above. If he does not, Mr Berry will  be left as acceptable collateral damage in the wake of this council’s juggernaut of silencing criticism by whatever means. And, as Ms Smith told Stephen Naysmith of The Herald: ‘There are no rules’.

Background: the two For Argyll articles on the George Berry  affair, published in August 2011, are:

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17 Responses to Spygate to Slimegate: Herald resurrects Smith’s role in Oban FM removing presenter George Berry

  1. The suspicion that there’s a culture of ‘dirty tricks’ festering within the council must now be so strong that central government should step in to take a decision on whether there’s sufficient cause to have the council’s behaviour formally investigated for wrongdoing – including forensic review of whether there’s been illegal accessing of private communications. It’s surely not up to individuals to initiate proceedings in these circumstances – that would be a default position that could bring Holyrood, and maybe even the police, into disrepute..

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  2. If these allegations are found to be even vaguely true – in any part – then this communications manger should be summarily sacked from her job in local government & without doubt. This to preserve & to correctly enforce appropriate, transparent, democratically accountable conduct within the public sector.

    In an open, democratic society which even extends as far as the nether regions of Argyll (in case certain elected representatives or their appointees have yet to notice from their rural hideouts) there are three (amongst others) key democratic tenets, with essential implications & consequences:

    1. The press is maintained as a free press, to include broadcasting media.

    Public bodies have a clear duty to support democractic processes & rights, as it’s the will of the people that brings public entities into being – & maintains them in being. Public entities are not intended to be self-serving except in non-democratic regions of the world, where there are well known abuses of power & position. Argyll is not a non-democratic region of the world. Abuses of power & position are therefore, clearly, to be frowned upon.

    2. Citizens have clear rights of free conduct, free association, freedom of expression & freedom of views, within the bounds of the law.

    Anyone in the public realm seeking to infringe or to compromise such hard fought for democratic rights & freedoms is clearly reprehensible & should be taken to task in the matters.

    3. Public service is intended to be directed towards just that, the service of the public & no other.

    All pretty cut & dried, tried & tested. Nothing ambiguous about any of it whatever. All very well established in both UK-wide & in Scottish democratic practice.

    So there are one or two rules for Ms Smith to contemplate, in a self-educative kind of fashion.

    We trust the elected representatives will also be contemplating these worthwhile & relevant issues, in terms of their democratic remit & clear responsibilities.

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    • For Paul Toy: Any allegations were those contained in Mr Berry’s broadcast about the councillor whose wife was said to have been seen using his parking permit – which are strictly for councillors’ own use in the pursuit of their responsibilities.

      What we are saying about Mr Berry’s forced departure from his job at Oban FM and about Ms Smith’s involvement in his removal through the station’s Advertising Manager, are matters of recorded fact, as her own email to Mr Campbell testifies.

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  3. From Paul Toy – 3. Public service is intended to be directed towards just that, the service of the public & no other.

    The trouble nowadays is that the public services, and particularly councillors, no longer serve the public. As I (cynically) see it these people serve only themselves and their parties. We, the public, are an irritant to their grand schemes and plans

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  4. I was not aware of the details of the George Berry affair until recently, and it really is quite appalling. It is right that it should be re-visited, not only in relation to the Jo Smith affair, but also in the context of the forthcoming Council elections.Did George Berry manage to name and shame his persecutor(s)? If so, who are they?
    It just so happens that I have a tape recording of the Oban fm Campbell Cameron DriveTime broadcast of 12th January 2011 featuring Cllrs Ellen Morton and Duncan McIntyre. It is unbelievably cosy, and simply provides a platform for these two to pour self-congratulatory sugar over just about everything – at a time when Argyll was seething with resentment over proposed school closures (and potholes actually!)If this is what Oban fm thinks constitutes ‘political’ broadcasting, then perhaps it is on balance a good thing that they decided to stop doing it. The station could do with a local Jeremy Paxman!!! (but perhaps minus his pro-Israeli proclivities…)

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  5. This whole affair brings shame on Oban and ask’s the question…are we all spineless enough to see this “cosily” swept under the carpet? Don’t reley on the Oban Times for any real effective reporting.

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  6. is this actually still going on i find it and this website laughable, i mean i know from a source within the radio station who is held in very high esteem in oban and the surrounding areas that mr berry had a number of complaints from various other organisations for the content of his show which was savage in his attacks and to say the least inaccurate also i was also told the equipment functioned perfectly in oban fm on every other programme apart from mr berry’s, Mr Berry and his co-presenter who was never involved in Oban fm i hear intend to stand for election , my question is if you hate the council so much then why do you want to be the one of them , i am an avid listener to Oban Fm i do not know the staff but surely the station should of been asked their opinion , Mr Berry has already admitted he left his programme he was never forced and its not the first time he has left Oban Fm i am surprised the station hasn’t already been investigated or sued over the savage attacks Mr berry subjected many organisations to , i believe there is always two sides to every story and surprise surprise its election time could this just be a way to keep the name george berry at the forefront of peoples minds, in any case election time creeps upon us this website should just be called lets attack the council and the george berry forum id rather see beavis and butthead in kilmory or issuing me a parking ticket.

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  7. To gbfc. It saddens me that people like you do not give your name and spout falsehoods. The piece of recording equipment used at Oban FM has previously failed to operate, a fact relayed to me by another programme presenter to whom it happened. For your information, I did leave Oban FM of my own free will, this was due to pressure placed on me by Oban FM’s advertising manager. Disillusioned, I decided to go. I am sorry you do not seem to be able to read the articles on FA properly, once again, I have an email in my possession from Oban FM to Jo Smith saying that they were pleased to inform her that Oban FM had decided to take George Berry’s Sunday morning show off the air for good. This, can I say, was after I left. Yes, we have had our critics but we have also had our successes, that was what the programme was all about. For your information, I have emailed Oban FM asking for a copy of the minutes of the management committee meeting when my dimissal was discussed and agreed, after several months I am still waiting on a reply. I stongly suspect no meeting took place. I hope you are satisfied with this reply and in the future you will check your facts. Incidently, Neil MacIntyre was my guest presenter, anyone in the community can present on Oban FM, why not give it a try?

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  8. @gbfc are you for real? You only get onesided stories frm the oban times mostly the ones the council approve! We need people like george and for argyll to keep nipping their heels reminding them that the voters of argyll put them there! You did have beavis (dick walsh) and butthead (ms smith) running the council. Ms smith is up to her neck in it! @ george berry. Good luck with all this george. Hopefully hear you back on the sunday show again nipping their heels! Maybe neil mckays gophar should be for the chop aswell?

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    • I fail to see what Jo Smith has done wrong. If you post on a social media site then you do it to get attention. You have the attention of the Councils media manager what more could you want. I wish I was her lawyer, I think it will be the ratepayers of Argyll & Bute will be picking up the bill for this.

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  9. For gbfc

    “i was also told the equipment functioned perfectly in oban fm on every other programme apart from mr berry’s,”

    shouldnt believe everything your told

    http://radiotoday.co.uk/2008/02/oban-fm-fails-to-log/

    Published on Tuesday, February 12th, 2008 at 7:40 am

    “Oban FM in North Argyll has breached its licence condition by not providing a copy of their output following a recent complaint to Ofcom.

    The community station, in the Highlands of Scotland, received a complaint from a listener who said that contributions from guest presenter John Macgregor were biased against the local authority, and infringed the privacy of their representatives. The complainant also objected that the presenter, as a local businessman, was able to give undue prominence to his personal views and business interests.

    The station was unable to provide a copy of the broadcast saying it had experienced problems with its logging system, which have since been rectified.

    Failure to keep recordings of its output for 42 days after transmission is a breach against condition 8 of its licence and Ofcom said they will keep the incident on record.”

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  10. newsroom. i think there might be a list as long as your arm in answer to your question! i may be wrong but i think he might have been on air with the now deceased cllr “skye” mcintosh. mr mcgregor at that time had “developments” with planning consents being sought for ganavan sands and stevenson street.cllr mcintosh at that time was part of the planning department. the old ganavan pavillion got demolished on the “qt” before any locals seemed to know anything about it. some people myself included could not understand how they could do the show together without it being a conflict of intrest. i will not speak ill of the dead so r.i.p. skye.

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  11. For Newsroom.
    Totally agree, If anyone has a problem with the content of a radio programme or the personal thoughts of a presenter surely the best way to nail them is to come on the programme.George,s programme covered a lot of local issues which people liked to hear and phone in to get involved.
    Most of the local councillors came in and the rest only had to lift a phone to take part.Sadly we lost two of our best loved councillors in Donald MacDonald and Big Donald Skye and if anyone had cause for compliant it would have been Big Donald because we used to wind him up something rotten.
    But he took it like the man he was and gave as good as he got.
    As George has said we did not hide behind the programme and If anyone phoned to complain, we read it out over the air.
    Local radio has a big part to play, none more so than when giving ordinary people a chance to either tell their story or to challenge the local council on their performance.
    As for Oban FM.,they will know what is being said and I am very surprised that they have not released a press statement.If you have nothing to hide whats the problem.
    As for Mr.Simpson and gbfc why don,t Oban FM.Invite George and myself on with the local councillor who made the complaint and let us debate the story so every local person can decide for themselves who is right or wrong.
    Power for the freedom of speech.

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  12. Pingback: David and Goliath – narrative of the PR ban « Heather Yaxley – Greenbanana views of public relations and more

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