Those of you who have followed my blog, both here and on the Times will be aware of the circumstances of my blog ceasing on the Edgware Times and starting here. For those who are new, let me just recap. Barnet Council started posting clips of the views of local residents on YouTube. One of these clips featured a blatantly Anti Semitic comment. A local resident complained, but Barnet Council refused to remove it. I then posted a blog on the Edgware Times entitled "Barnet Council using your taxes to promote Nazi Ideology". You can see my full take on it by clicking on the story name. Lets just say I'm still not really very happy with the what happened.
I noticed that in Answers to councillors questions for the forthcoming Barnet Council meeting, Councillor Mike Freer was asked the following question and gave the following response.
Councillor Jack Cohen
Please explain how the Council allowed a video containing an anti- Semitic content to be released on the internet.
Answer by Councillor Mike Freer, Leader of the Council
The Council is embarking on new ways in which we can engage and capture the views of residents to assist the shaping of future service provision. Part of this work included the recording of 17 videos with residents in the Childs Hill and Hale wards of the Borough.
Each video was recorded by an external third party and edited prior to being sent onto the Council where a further viewing took place. One video was uploaded on 28 September 2008.
One complaint was received in relation to the video from a resident. Corporately, discussions took place as to whether the video should remain to stimulate debate or be removed however following an e-mail from the Leader of the Council at 7.30am on 3 October 2008 the offending video was removed by 9am the same day.
Any future videos uploaded to Council websites involving the views of residents will follow the OFCOM Broadcast Guidelines, will be subject to a double editing process and will be vetted by the Council’s Strategic Equalities Advisor. Mistakes occur it is how they are handled that is important and my response was swift once the issue was brought to my attention.
As ever with Councillor Freer, there is a pattern. His administration makes an avoidable and stupid mistake. There is an uproar. Questions are asked. Councillor Mike Freer gives an answer which implies he's done a great job.
Well his answer neglects to mention a few things. Firstly it neglects to say that initially the council refused to take down the clip. Secondly, it doesn't say why staff weren't properly trained in the first place to avoid such obvious banana skins or follow OFCOM rules. It doesn't say that the resident who, quite justifiably, complained has yet to receive an apology. We all agree that mistakes are made, but this is a serious breakdown in the council's procedures and processes. It shows a complete lack of proper training for staff.
There are some disturbing questions which Councillor Freer's answer poses. He says Corporately, discussions took place as to whether the video should remain to stimulate debate or be removed. Now to me the only debate this clip could possibly have stimulated is one as to just how incompetent Barnet Council has become under Mike Freer's leadership. What was the debate that they wanted to start? Who thought we needed to have this debate? What did they hope this debate would achieve? These questions need to be put to Councillor Freer as a matter of urgency. I don't want the council to stimulate debate as to whether "Jews are normal people" (one of the issues raised in the clip). I am disturbed that senior people at the council could even suggest such a debate at a corporate level.
Just as a comparison, let us review the situation with Radio 2 airing the show featuring Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross making stupid phone calls to Andrew Sachs. Following this broadcast, the controller of Radio 2 resigned and Russell Brand resigned. They accepted that material had been broadcast which was totally inappropriate and likely to cause offence. Surely this is equally true of the Barnet YouTube clip. Not only that, but the YouTube clip was potentially inciteful. Councillor Mike Freer thought it was serious enough to even refer it to the Police. To me this is far more serious than Brand's comments which were just boorish and uncouth.
I say this to you Mike - A good leader puts procedures in place which avoid this sort of fiasco. A well run Council doesn't promote views that contravene the law of the land.
In a later question, Councillor Freer gives the game away in an answer to Labour Member Charlie O'Macaulay. Here he admits that he's the guy who is ultimately responsible.
Councillor Charlie O-Macauley
When will the Administration re-introduce a Cabinet Committee whose sole remit is to ensure equalities are properly monitored in the implementation of Council policy?
Answer by Councillor Mike Freer, Leader of the Council
This Administration has made more progress on equality and diversity since the subject became a personal responsibility of mine with regular progress reported through the many reports approved by Cabinet. This is far more effective than the previous talking shop approach of a Cabinet Sub-Committee that achieved little.
Does Mike Freer think equality and diversity be promoted by the council placing right wing propaganda on the internet and leaving it there in the face of a justified residents complaint? Councillor Mike Freer has taken personal responsibility for setting up the processess and procedures, he says so in his answer. I'd have thought rule 1 of any procedures to promote diversity would be to say "The council shall not tolerate any behaviour which denigrates any citizen of Barnet because of race or creed." Applying this simple rule would have instantly disqualified the YouTube clip.
So lets recap. Councillor Mike Freer has taken personal responsibility for promoting diversity. He said so in a Council meeting. The council placed a YouTube video on the Internet promoting Anti Semitic views. He is responsible both as council leader and with his special role which he described to Councillor O-Macauley. He is clearly aware that members of his organisation want to promote debate on the merits of anti-semitic views. What action has he taken? Let me ask Councillor Freer this? What happens if you are responsible for broadcasting offensive material. Ask Russell Brand and his ex boss if you are unsure of the answer?