It’s okay to knowingly publish false information in a political message to win votes, but what you cannot do is defame someone in particular.
As part of the process of legal action being taken over one particular leaflet, I can show off some good documentation of the sequence of events.
This election leaflets website, formerly known as thestraightchoice.org, was the result of my association with the Liverpool Green Party which exposed me to the importance of election leaflets.
The party holds a small enclave in St Michael’s Ward, which the Liverpool LibDems (then the majority party in the city) made it their business to erase from the face of the earth.
I covered an example of a later trick here where they falsely alleged that the Green Party had given up on the campaign.
But there was a leaflet from before the election leaflet website was founded, which had a section like this:
The Liverpool Daily Post has the story:
Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Twigger faces £6,400 defamation bill after homeless slur on Greens
A SENIOR Lib-Dem was hit with a £6,400 bill after agreeing to pay damages to two Green councillors who he alleged had forced homeless people to sleep in the snow.
Cllr Paul Twigger agreed to settle with Cllrs John Coyne and Sarah Jennings, who both represent the St Michaels ward, ahead of a defamation trial.
The case centred around a planning application to use a community building in Lark Lane as an overnight homeless shelter.
The Greens proposed an alternative venue, before Cllr Twigger published a leaflet claiming that “shockingly, the city’s Green councillors refused to allow a local community building to be used, meaning some homeless people were forced to sleep rough in temperatures well below zero.”
The Greens had sought an apology but documents obtained by the Daily Post showed Cllr Twigger’s legal team had claimed justification on the grounds the leaflet’s statement was true.
But before the trial could take place, Cllr Twigger – shadow cabinet member for children’s services and member for Knotty Ash – agreed to pay £6,000 costs and £200 damages each to Cllrs Coyne and Jennings.
The details are actually more interesting.
You have to work backwards from the assumption that these types of smear tactics actually work and that manoeuvring your political opponents into a difficult no-win situations whenever possible can give rise to these opportunities.
St Michaels and Lark Lane Community Association (SMLLCA) is a voluntary organisation which owns and manages a building used as a community centre in Lark Lane within St Michaels Ward.
The executive committee of SMLLCA had offered the use of that building to the City Council’s homeless service so that it could be used overnight to provide a city-wide shelter for rough sleepers at times of extreme cold weather. [The local Green Councillors] were consulted in advance by the Homeless Service and raised no objections.
Use of the building overnight required a planning application for a change of use. [The Councillors] were content that the notification of that application would provide a suitable opportunity for consultation with local residents on the principle of using the centre for cold weather shelter.
There was a strong reaction from local residents and some real and perceived weaknesses in the planning notification increased feelings of mistrust of the City Council. [The local Councillors] attended public meetings and came under pressure to oppose the use of the centre.
Instead of opposing the application, [The local Councillors] sought to ensure that residents had and were seen to have a full opportunity to express their concerns and objections.
So far so good. Why was a city of this size, which was controlled by the Lib Dem party at the time, positioning its emergency homeless shelter some miles from the centre in this particular ward? Surely there were other places being planned.
Here’s a question put down by one of those Green Councillors:
The answer isn’t very interesting. There are lots of facilities being explored. The place in St Michael’s ward is not essential to avoid people sleeping rough in the streets.
But then there’s this question put down by another councillor who does not belong to the Green Party:
The answer detailed the numerous provisions in the city of this size.
But it contained the following unusual final paragraph:
The Green Councillors discovered that this was not the original answer.
Here is the original final paragraph:
As you can see, the council officer who wrote the original answer has put their name to it. That’s the clue. It wasn’t there on the published statement.
Answers that are given anonymously cannot be held accountable. People avoid putting their names onto false statements when they don’t have to. And no one has admitted authorship of that paragraph. But it was undoubtedly part of that chain of events that resulted in that section of a political leaflet.
Now election leaflets are not anonymous documents. By law they need an imprint naming the publisher and the printer.
We should start coding them up in Electionleaflets Mark 2.
In the meantime, here is the court settlement, which obliges there to be an apology in their next leaflet in the next two weeks.