More monkey business

Curly’s assertion in the Gazette last night that the Mr Monkey blog had brought South Tyneside into disrepute and risks the loss of inward investment does have some merit. However, on a scale of risk, the recent Twitter action by South Tyneside Council has given Monkey a national stage, and as such there is a clear argument that the council’s actions, combined with unfortunate timing, poses a much greater threat to the area’s reputation and regeneration.

As I said last week, the world outside South Tyneside would have been oblivious to the Monkey antics if the council hadn’t pursued the attempt to unmask the Monkey on behalf of three councillors and an employee.

Since the Monkey posts seemed to have dried up it’s not unreasonable to conclude that by pursuing the case the council has made a huge tactical and PR blunder.

You’ve also got to wonder how successful any subsequent English legal actions would be. If the Monkey is found and sued, what chance would the council have of getting our money back?

First there is a question of the level of reputational damage. As today’s Daily Mail has suggested, David Potts’ recent tribulations may pose a problem for establishing a clear case of damage. Despite the personal slurs against him, his alcoholism, outbursts and u-turns would be an easy target for a defence barrister on a damages limitation exercise.

For different reasons, any reputational damage suffered by Iain Malcolm wouldn’t be difficult to quantify.

In the 2011 elections Iain Malcolm held his Horsley Hill seat with 1700 votes and a majority of 962. In 2007, he took 1358 votes with a majority of 722. So despite the awful things said about him, the comments didn’t hurt him electorally and he increased his vote and majority.

Similarly, the Monkey defamations don’t appear to have harmed his credibility amongst his Labour party colleagues. He remains leader of the council and there were no hints that he has lost his party’s confidence.

That’s not to say there isn’t a case to answer. The plaintiffs are clearly victims of some outrageous and hurtful defamation, and it would be to Independent Alliance’s credit if they distanced themselves from the Monkey slurs.

However, there is a real question over over whether it’s reasonable for the council to fund such actions, and what limits it would have, if any, in it’s mission of ‘duty of care’, which seems to be the standard rebuttal to criticism.

If the council executive were to be proportional, consistent and in particular fair in it’s application of the duty of care, then it would fund similar actions to uncover those behind the Fat Councillor blog, which has not held back on malicious gossip about councillors and associates of the South Tyneside Independent Alliance and their families. If the council executive has not offered similar support to the victims in the Indy Alliance, then you have to ask if there is a genuine ethical basis in the claimed duty of care, or if the council is acting in a partisan manner.

But say the Monkey is unmasked, legal action was taken and the plaintiffs were successful. Would the defendant(s) be in a position to pay any costs awarded, not to mention damages? Here is the risk South Tyneside Council is taking – with our money. What would such a failure do tor South Tyneside’s reputation, never mind our collective bank balance?

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