Written by Gordon Neish Monday, 20 February 2012 14:06
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ARGYLL and Bute Council’s head of communications, Jo Smith, was suspended last Friday after a report in the Herald claimed she had admitted to setting up ‘spy accounts’ on social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, with the purpose of gathering information about critics of the council – but is there more to this revelation than meets the eye?
The Herald’s social affairs correspondent, Stephen Naysmith, reported that Ms Smith revealed her covert activity at a conference in Glasgow. He reported Ms Smith spoke to delegates about using ‘spy accounts’ to “join groups covertly to establish what critics or opponents of council policy were saying”.
Mr Naysmith’s unnamed source said there was a sense of ‘shock’ when Ms Smith described her activities. The source continued: “Other professional communicators in the room were very uncomfortable about it – not only is it unethical, it was a strange thing to tell other people about.”
What the Herald story failed to mention was that the conference, called ‘Epic Social Media Scotland’, was held in September 2011 – five months before the article was published.
The conference – for communications professionals in Scotland – was organised by Nick Hill, of Public Sector Web Network.
Mr Hill had a different take on Ms Smith’s presentation from the Herald’s anonymous source. He said – after the Herald published a second article saying that Ms Smith had been suspended: “Far from the storm of outrage the report suggests, there was not a single complaint about Ms Smith's presentation or comment on the day nor since. Looking back at feedback forms she topped the list with the highest rated feedback.
“The phrase ‘spy accounts’ was featured in the presentation in speech marks deliberately, as they referred informally to individuals referring back what they’d seen elsewhere voluntarily rather than some dastardly plot.
“The phrase was given deliberate context in the conference. This is reflected by the complete absence of a complaint from anyone in the audience.”
Mr Hill continued: “Against that we have a thus-far unnamed source who I can’t confirm was even at the event, that never complained to me during or after the event, has all of a sudden decided to stop mulling it over and come forward now after five months.”
One communications professional said: “It’s a strange kind of spy who tells everybody about their activities.”
A council statement last Friday said: “The council does not, nor ever would, condone the covert us of social media. A full investigation is underway and a member of staff has been suspended.”
There was angry complaint from opposition councillors and politicians – the council elections are a matter of weeks away – and attempts were made to link the council’s CEO, Sally Loudon, and Council leader Dick Walsh to the growing scandal.
Then, readers of Monday’s Scotsman were presented with a story about roads in Argyll and Bute being the worst in Scotland, with some harsh criticism of the council.
This article was based on a report published by the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in August last year, and covered by the Standard at the time. The same story was broadcast on STV news that evening,
There was no mention of the date of the report from either outlet, and - we understand - the council was not contacted to give its side of the story.
Tuesday’s Herald had another pop at Jo Smith, reporting that ‘new’ allegations had been made against Ms Smith, implying she had been directly involved in forcing an Oban FM presenter who was critical of the council to resign.
Again, this story comes from August 2011 and the presenter, George Berry, has been making allegations since then.
So, is the council guilty of spying on opponents and forcing them out of their jobs – or are there dark forces at work attempting to smear the council through the national press?
Are political ‘black ops’ being undertaken, with the national press — and local blogs — as unwitting participants?