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Dragon Says: Councillors Must Rein in Rogue Tweeters for the Reputation of Their Parties and the Council

Published on: 28 May, 2023
Updated on: 30 May, 2023

Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) was wrong to Tweet about the Police & Crime Commissioner back in 2021 that she was a “Dishonest, Transphobic Bigot” and the independent investigator showed bad judgement in clearing him of wrongdoing because he was “not acting in his official capacity” as a councillor.

See: Councillor ‘Not Acting in Official Capacity’ When He Called Police Commissioner a ‘Dishonest, Transphobic Bigot’

For many of us, our career positions or public appointments carry with them a responsibility to act sensibly in all our public utterances. Indeed, these days even comments made in private can be seen as fair game for critics, sometimes understandably perhaps, if the comments, for instance, display true extremism.

Of course, it should be acceptable for politicians to criticise others but they should not sink to playground name-calling. It does nothing for their cause and reflects badly on them and the organisations they belong to.

Cllr George Potter and PCC Lisa Townsend

When it comes to publishing opinions on social media extra care must be taken. Not only are comments subject to the normal law of libel they are, effectively, broadcast for all to see.

If, for instance, a police officer Tweets an improper comment when off duty it is very unlikely that he could simply excuse himself by saying: “But I was off-duty”.

Surrey Police’s social media policy is explicit. It says:

Social media users should be aware that their use of social media in a personal capacity should always be compatible with this workplace policy.

Social media users should behave in a manner which does not discredit the police service or undermine public confidence in it, whether on or off duty…

Any communications that individuals make in a personal capacity must not: Bring either Force, or UK policing, into disrepute – this includes, but is not limited to:
• making defamatory or libellous comments about individuals, organisations or groups…

Interestingly, when defending themselves against a complaint from Dragon editor Martin Giles in September 2022, former councillors Paul Spooner and Graham Eyre put forward a similar defence to Cllr Potter’s, ie that they had been acting in a personal capacity, not as councillors, when they had made remarks.

But in that case, the investigator did not accept it even though, in former councillor Eyre’s case, a private email account was used.

See: Complaints Against Cllrs Spooner and Eyre Upheld At Hearing

Fortunately, most councillors fully understand their responsibilities and act properly. They should ensure that all their colleagues also abide by their code to protect both the reputation of the council and their own parties.

Staying quiet and failing to call out this type of behaviour is simply not good enough.

Something else that is not good enough is GBC’s complaints system. George Potter made his disgraceful Tweet in August 2021. A huge investigation was not necessary, the evidence was not hard to gather, it comprised essentially of a few Tweets. Statements had to be taken but the whole thing should not have taken nearly a year and a half to complete.

The unjustifiable length of the complaints process at GBC is part of a pattern and, as the saying goes: “Justice delayed is justice denied”.

Part two of the pattern is the extraordinary degree of secrecy. Why aren’t all complaint findings published as a matter of course? All parties at GBC say they want openness. No one should believe them until they make this simple change.

Another well-known saying is “justice has to be seen to be done”. It’s about time we could see it when it comes to complaints against councillors and Cllr George Potter is on record as agreeing.

See: ‘Strong Argument’ for Publishing Outcomes of Complaints Against GBC Councillors, Says Committee Chair

And a third pattern is that most complaints against councillors arise from the use of social media with a small band of councillors responsible. Those few councillors, when they feel the red mist descend, need to grow up, smarten up and, when necessary, shut up –  just like the rest of us.

See: Councillors Failing to Follow Social Media Guidance Is the Cause of Most Complaints

See also: Dragon Interview: Pt 1 – Council’s Complaints Process Is ‘Not Fit For Purpose’ – Says Retired Chief Exec

and: Complaint About Lib Dem Councillor Sent to Party Leader Sir Ed Davey

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Responses to Dragon Says: Councillors Must Rein in Rogue Tweeters for the Reputation of Their Parties and the Council

  1. Liz Critchfield Reply

    May 29, 2023 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you Guildford Dragon for this cogent and measured response. There is no excuse for such offensive language. We all have the right to voice our opinions but engaging in courteous debate is the civilised way to go about it.

    Shrieking abuse via Twitter seems to be the default position these days but anyone in public life should be mature enough to express their views in an acceptable manner.

  2. Mark Bray-Parry Reply

    June 1, 2023 at 8:38 am

    It is a misrepresentation to describe George Potter’s tweet as “playground name-calling”. I doubt Mr Potter was using it as an insult directed at Lisa Townsend but rather as a concise description of how Mr Potter sees Ms Townsend.

    The viewpoint that Ms Townsend is someone who has a disregard for trans people, is dishonest about that disregard, and who refuses to listen and engage with the trans community and instead appears antagonistic to those who defend trans rights is held by many, especially within the LGBT+ community.

    If that view is shared by Mr Potter, then “dishonest, transphobic bigot” is a much more concise way to communicate this viewpoint within Twitter’s character limit.

    • Daniel Hill Reply

      June 1, 2023 at 12:09 pm

      It’s very disappointing that Mark Bray would try and make excuses for George Potter’s rude and aggressive behaviour.

  3. Sara Tokunaga Reply

    June 2, 2023 at 6:54 pm

    George Potter has, as my grandfather used to say, become exuberated by his own verbosity.

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