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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.’
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: