tl;dr– Manchester City Council officials have been extremely careless in pumping out propaganda during what is supposed to be a “neutral” time ahead of Thursday 6th May local elections. I’ve submitted a FOIA (will get evasions and replies that don’t amount to answers) and a complaint (which will get brushed off). A history lesson closes things out.
There are elections on Thursday 6th May. In several of the 32 wards there is a serious chance that Labour (which currently holds 91 of the 96 council seats) will lose to opponents who are pushing hard on local environmental issues, mostly around air quality. In the city centre, Ancoats & Beswick, Deansgate and Piccadilly are all “in play” for the Liberal Democrats. The Council’s appalling handling of Great Ancoats St, the Central Retail Park, air quality generally and the hopelessness of its climate emergency “action” are – the Lib Dems hope – going to help them get seats. Further south, there are other issues. In the southernmost ward, Woodhouse Park, the Green Party hopes to unseat a long-standing Labour incumbent.
There are elections on Thursday 6th May. There are rules about how councillors who are up for re-election are supposed to behave. They are not supposed to use Council equipment/resources (including their email accounts). There are supposed to be no big announcements of new policy/spending by Executive Members. And there are rules about how Council officers are supposed to behave. Collectively, these are known as purdah (silence).
Well, on Thursday 22nd April a series of highly inaccurate Tweets were sent out from the official Twitter account of Manchester City Council.
That in itself is no surprise. The Council’s Twitter feed is a relentless firehose of disingenuous propaganda. You get used to it.
There are elections on Thursday 6th May. We are in purdah. Nobody seems to have told the Comms team.
So, I’ve written a Freedom of Information Act request, and I’ve also made a complaint to the City Solicitor. Both will go nowhere, but the standard you walk past is the standard you accept…
Not that it affects this FOIA, or any FOIA, but for the sake of clarity, I am not a member now and have never been a member, of any political party. Not Green, not Labour, not Liberal Democrat, not any Trot groupuscule. Nada, zilch.
I have just seen some tweets sent from the Manchester City Council Twitter account on April 22nd (aka “Earth Day”). These were highly inaccurate and incomplete mischaracterisations of what the Council has done/not done in the last two years. That’s what we have come to expect.
HOWEVER, we are in purdah now, ahead of the May 6th elections, and the Council has no business pumping out this sort of propaganda.
Specifically with regard to the tweets
1. Whose bright idea was it to run these tweets during purdah?
2. Who drafted/wrote them? Was it purely comms team staff? I am interested in whether other staff in other directorates, and especially people from City Policy and/or the Climate Change “Agency” involved.
3. What legal advice, if any, was sought from the City Solicitor about the legality and propriety of running the tweets was sought? Please provide copies of all the correspondence, if any such correspondence exists.
4. What training do Comms staff and anyone else responsible for constructing and okaying tweets receive about what is and is not allowable during purdah? How long does it last? Is it a pure “try to stay awake at the back while I rattle through this deck of excruciating powerpoint slides” or is it actually interactive/real-life? Please provide copies of that training/the materials
5. How is this training recorded? How often is this training conducted/refreshed? When did the people who created and also okayed the April 22nd tweets
6. What communication, if any, was sent by the City Solicitor/her staff from January 1st 2021 to the Comms staff around the purdah period for the May 6 elections? Please provide all copies of this, if it exists.
Finally, who do I make a formal complaint to about this? Those tweets should never have been sent as they stood. It WAS possible to mark Earth Day, but in far less contentious ways, that didn’t breach purdah.
Given that it can take 20 days to get a reply, I am going to write to the City Solicitor separately about this. But I still expect you to tell me.
Actually, while we are at it.
7. For each of the past three years (calendar, municipal, financial, whatever floats your boat/is easiest), a) how many complaints have been made to the Council about its communications? b) how many were upheld?c) what changes were put in place so that upheld complaints were acted upon.
Please consider this a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
Dr Marc Hudson
Dear Ms Ledden,
I hope this communication finds you well and enjoying the wonderful weather.
I am addressing this complaint to you in your role as City Solicitor. If you are not the person to whom I should be addressing this complaint, pleasea) forward it to the right personb) cc me in (as in, you have my permission to share my contact details, in case there is any GDPR issue)
My complaint involves what I consider to be a serious breach of the rules surrounding Council officers making public statements during the so-called “purdah” period before local elections.
On Thursday 22nd April a thread of 9 tweets was sent out from the City Council’s official Twitter account. April 22nd is of course “Earth Day.”
These tweets were NOT an accurate reflection of what has actually been achieved by the Council in the almost two years since the declaration of a Climate Emergency, though they purported to be so.
Given that in several of the 32 wards of the city, environmental/air quality/traffic and yes, climate issues, there are closely-fought contests between the incumbent Labour Party and challengers (Liberal Democrat and Green Party), it is, I am sure you will agree, extremely important that the Council’s communications are crystal clear, accurate and cannot be perceived as an endorsement of any particular party.
It was possible to celebrate/commemorate Earth Day while keeping within both the letter and spirit of purdah, but that is not, in fact, what has happened.
I am happy to detail the inaccuracies and absences in the tweets, and to provide examples of what would have been acceptable tweets if you request.
I am seeking
a) an explanation of how these Tweets came to be generated, and clarity on how they were considered to be purdah-compliant, by who, wen
b) an apology to the people of Manchester for breaching purdah. This would include but not be limited toa prominently displayed statement on the Council’s websitea Pinned Tweet on the Council’s Twitter feed, for a period of a week, with a link to the apologya press release sent out to all the journalists and organisations who are on the Council’s press release that explains the breach of purdah and the apologyThe reading out, by either a senior officer or Executive member, of the statement, during the proceedings of a full council meeting
c) a commitment to and detailed explanation of new systems/training “etc” that would make future breaches of purdah less likely.
d) a donation by the Council to an appropriate and genuinely independent grassroots group (Youth Strike Manchester might be a good start) and to an international charity that does climate justice work (I have a few ideas about that)
I include below a copy of the Freedom of Information Act request that I have sent today (Saturday 24th April) to firstname.lastname@example.org for your convenience.
The History Lesson
Back in 2014, there was a new Executive Member for the Environment. I organised an open letter from a whole bunch of different individuals and organisations to the Council, the so-called “Nine Actions”.
Here’s the video I made, with the help of a lot of good people.
One of the nine was that the Executive Member would start a blog that detailed what she was doing around climate change (we didn’t call it a climate emergency back then, thought it bloody well was).
There was a delay
She privately assured me that she would.
And then she said she wouldn’t. It wasn’t “the hill she was going to die on.”
We were told that the officers had told her it couldn’t happen because the environment was “political” and there might be complaints by other parties (there wouldn’t have been).
We submitted a FOIA to get the correspondence between her and officers.
We were ignored. We finally went to the Information Commissioner.
Then, and only then, we got the correspondence.
But here we are, six plus years later.
Somehow, a blog, like the Leader of the Council already has, would have been too political in ordinary times.
But sending out hugely misleading “green” pap during purdah? That’s just fine.
And we are supposed to take these Squealers and Napoleons seriously?