York council leader James Alexander today lambasts the culture of anonymous online trolling, after unmasking a regular Twitter critic of his as the partner of a Tory councillor.
In response the critic, David Smith, has resigned from his job as director of development at The Retreat, the York charity which specialises in mental health care.
His resignation came after Cllr Alexander and Cllr Daffyd Williams, the cabinet member for finance & performance, had both written formally to The Retreat to inform them that Mr Smith’s action had damaged the reputation of the charity and its relationship with City of York Council.
David told YorkMix that, despite disagreeing with this claim, he wanted to act quickly to protect the charity from any potential harm.
He denies accusations that his postings on Twitter and elsewhere – under the assumed names @JackHamYork, Jack Hamilton and Jack Ham – amounted to cyber bullying.
Writing today for YorkMix, Cllr Alexander details the online abuse he and others in the public eye have suffered.
He accepts that his position means he “will be given a rough ride by different people for a variety of reasons – often with justification”.
But the Labour council leader says the anonymous vitriol directed at him via social media sites and comments under news stories is unacceptable.
“I have been accused of abusing old ladies, theft, assaulting a member of staff and bullying. On occasions I have had to involve North Yorkshire Police, such as on the occasion when I received a death threat,” he writes.
“Politics should be about ideas and ideals, agreements and disagreements, not name calling, not personalised attacks and certainly not harassment or bullying, anonymous or otherwise. ”
David Smith accidentally outed himself as Jack Hamilton on Twitter by posting the same “selfie” under his pseudonym and his real name.
“David Smith has a career in mental health and recently wrote a paper on people’s self-esteem,” Cllr Alexander writes.
“Behind the mask of Jack Ham he retweeted a link to an online report which accused me of bullying, cover-up, theft and attempted assault of a member of staff with no basis for these claims, which are all untrue.
“I am considering legal action against him as a result.”
‘It wasn’t bullying’
Speaking to YorkMix, Mr Smith said he was Jack Ham but denied he was guilty of online bullying.
“It wasn’t bullying. As Jack Ham I repeatedly asked questions on the Press and on Twitter and there was never any response. On Twitter I directly Tweeted councillors and asked for their responses – there was no response.
“There were never any complaints made to Twitter about me being offensive or bullying. It was only after I was exposed as the partner of the Conservative councillor that suddenly it all seems to be so offensive.”
Mr Smith’s partner is Cllr Paul Doughty, who represents Strensall on the council.
There was a reason for not Tweeting or commenting under his own name, Mr Smith said. “I’ve seen the way that Labour York have reacted to criticism in the past.
“I work for a charity that has to work with the city council. And I wanted to distance my personal political views from the relationship between the charity and the city council.
“In retrospect it was the wrong thing to do. But I didn’t set it up in order to bully and troll, which is what they’re trying to say.”
Impact on mental health
In his piece for YorkMix, Cllr Alexander says: “It is impossible to fathom how someone who works in mental health could behave in such a way as to have a negative impact on my mental health and that of my family and colleagues.”
In response, Mr Smith said: “My history of working and campaigning around mental health stands on its own two feet. For those who know me know those allegations are completely without any merit.
“I find it particularly unsavoury that James has chosen to focus on that as another way to try to stop me being critical of the policies of his administration.”
Mr Smith resigned from The Retreat on Thursday morning (October 9). “My first thing was to protect the charity,” he said.
“That’s why I set up the anonymous account in the first place and didn’t do it myself. I had no choice but to resign.”