‘Enough’: York council leader hits back at online bullies and trolls

9 Oct 2014 @ 5.45 pm
| Opinion, Politics


  Council leader receives death threats

  Opponent accused of anonymous trolling

  ‘Time to cast a light on nastier side of politics’

‘York’s political culture has got worse and must change quickly’ says James Alexander

As City of York Council leader James Alexander expects to take some flak. But, he writes, the anonymous abuse has gone too far

As someone in the public eye, it is accepted that now and again I will be given a rough ride by different people for a variety of reasons – often with justification.

But on occasions some feel it is acceptable to level abuse. This is unacceptable.

Chris Titley, editor of YorkMix, had come across my comments about behaviour before and asked me to write an article on the issue in December 2012.

I didn’t get round to writing this – partly because I didn’t want to highlight the impact this online bullying was having on myself, my family or my work colleagues.

However, the situation has got worse since January and I think it is important to cast a light over the nastier side of York’s politics.

The rise of the troll

We live in a modern world where communication is instant and quite often public. The rise of social media has led to a rise in what has been called the “internet troll”. These are people who spend their time bullying and harassing others through electronic media.

Quite often these individuals hide behind a pseudonym and attack public figures either through comments on media websites, through blogs or through Twitter and Facebook.

For many of them no one is off limits and sometimes they resort to attacking junior members of staff.

Politics should be about ideas and ideals, agreements and disagreements, not name calling, not personalised attacks and certainly not harassment

There has been much in the media about this phenomenon, whether that be the recent case of Kate and Gerry McCann who received online abuse, that of Stella Creasy MP who was threatened with rape on Twitter, leading to the jailing of her assailant, or Conservative MP Tim Loughton who has suffered intolerable abuse from a constituent.

I have received similar abuse, as have other councillors and staff at City of York Council. This has included comments on The Press website, spurious freedom of information requests which have no basis in FOI legislation, Tweets, Facebook posts and emails.

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.

I have also involved the Police with instances of racist abuse I have received from one individual and harassment from another who has a history of violence.

Sadly it is sometimes councillors or people closely aligned to them who are these trolls. I take a zero tolerance approach to such behaviour.

Should someone set out to be offensive or say untruths, I will block them and often report them to the relevant authorities.

Below is an example of some of the abuse I receive:


Terrible impact

Such abuse and harassment has a terrible impact on me but more importantly my family. It is also a barrier to people wanting to become involved in politics and change things for the better.

Most recently David Smith, a director at The Retreat and partner of Conservative Councillor Paul Doughty was uncovered as the man behind the Twitter account JackHamYork. He was exposed through a ‘selfie’ he posted to the wrong Twitter account.

David Smith has a career in mental health and recently wrote a paper on people’s self-esteem. 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.

Two Tweets: the one on the left is from the @JackHamYork account – now deleted – and one from David Smith’s own Twitter account

While he was exhibiting this behaviour he brought into question the reputation and integrity of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York Citizen’s Advice Bureau and York’s independent Fairness Commission – often accusing staff of these organisations of not being impartial.

He accused others of being cowards for hiding behind pseudonyms. His attacks on the very council staff he worked with in his day to day work are unacceptable.

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.

And it is difficult to conclude that his actions were anything other than politically motivated.

I will be raising the issue of this unacceptable behaviour at the council’s next full council meeting of all councillors. Politics will always come with some rough and tumble – something many of us accept as part and parcel of the jobs we are doing, yet something we can separate from the personal.

But York’s current political culture goes well beyond strong disagreement on policy, is damaging to the council, has got worse and must change quickly.

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.

York residents deserve better and need better if they are to engage with public debate and the decisions we are making which affect them.