Since I first became in involved in the inner workings of the East Lancashire mill town, over a year ago (read more here), the presence of an unusually large number of politically active groups quickly became apparent. All with a single, and strongly articulated, anti-Labour agenda. A significant portion of it expressed in abusive, harassing and defamatory form, writes Neil Wilby.
They include, in no particular order, The People of Oldham and Saddleworth (The POOS, fronted by Tommy Robinson supporter, Paul Errock); Failsworth Independent Party (the FIPS, a haven for far right activists, founded by ex-GMP sergeant, Mark Wilkinson, and his wife Kath) and their connected cousins Failsworth Street Patrol (a vigilante group); Oldham Heart (a thoroughly reprehensible Facebook group run by Paul Taylor, and another far-right sanctuary), the Neo-nazi run Oldham Eye (seemingly controlled by Britain First’s John Lawrence); the troubled, permanently abusive, money-leeching Recusant Nine platform run by far-right totem, Raja Miah (about whom much is written elsewhere on this website) and Chronic Oldham, believed to be operated by Chadderton resident, Damon Ashworth.
In contrast to most of his contemporaries, the bulk of the Chronic Oldham output appears to be, mostly, as a result of reading, research and statistical analysis. Indeed, a lot of it is interesting and helpful to the neutral reader – and is worthy of a wider audience. Spoiled only by the constant, dreary, adverse and frequently contrived references to local and regional Labour politicians with whom he, plainly, has an axe to grind. Possibly, with very good reason. To use his own words: “Oldham is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK with pockets of extreme deprivation, it has long-term entrenched foreign heritage communities that are as much part of the Oldham landscape as the Pennines are”.
If he simply let the facts tell the story (first rule of journalism) it would be a hundred times more effective – and the citizens of his home town would look out even more eagerly for what he has assiduously unearthed. But that’s not the way it seems to work in Oldham: The truth needs to be decorated if the facts run against you.
So it proved in the only encounter on social media that I have had with Chronic Oldham (I have clashed frequently with most of the other malcontents, mostly in reply to some of the most vile and persistent abuse ever encountered, in a publishing career that dates back to the early 1980’s).
It all started innocuously enough: Chronic Oldham replied to a generic post by Andy Burnham’s mayoral campaigning team that included a typically soporific promotional video clip:
The Chronic Oldham post caught my attention for two reasons: Firstly, I had been highly critical of the breach of lockdown regulations in May, by both Cllr Sean Fielding, Leader of Oldham Council, and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner. They had been caught in the act, and photographed, by one of Raja Miah’s supporters and he had, of course, gleefully, kicked them hard over it. Secondly, he referenced complaints (or, more accurately, enquiries) made by Cllr Fielding to the employers of four Oldham citizens over apparent connections to, or support of, abusive far-right groups.
My reply was, on any view, measured and sought to be helpful in bringing clarity to the situation. A great deal has been written about those enquiries, subsequent complaints and their outcomes, elsewhere on this website. A link to one of those pieces was included in the response (read here):
The reply from Chronic Oldham might be fairly characterised as terse and overly-defensive. It also contained a surprising, and concerning, assertion that appeared to have no factual basis. In over four months of investigating the complaints, in highly forensic detail, not one person, or organisation, had made the claim that it was forbidden under Labour Party policy for Cllr Fielding to act in the way he did.
The follow-up made two perfectly reasonable points and politely requested a pointer in the direction of the policy upon which he relied. Character limits on Twitter posts prevented me pointing out, further, that it was well rehearsed in the public domain, by Cllr Fielding, that making a defamation claim was beyond his financial means. Ordinarily, you would need around £5,000 to fund initial legal costs that would cover the drafting of a statement of grounds by counsel and a further £10,000 to cover the cost of the court fee at the point of filing and service on the defendant(s). Taking a claim to trial could cost over £50,000.
To which there came no reply and, it is believed, that it was at this point Chronic Oldham decided to block Neil Wilby on the Twitter platform rather than answer the question. An action Mr Ashworth is perfectly entitled to take, of course. But one normally reserved as a remedy for unpleasant behaviour or repeated, unwelcome attention. Indeed, in his own Twitter bio he sets out clear parameters: “Abuse, mass posts, tinfoil hats and Covid deniers = blocked“.
In this particular instance, made all the more perverse by his very recent criticism of Cllr Fielding for blocking Chronic Oldham.
Mindful of his other biographical claim of “facts not rhetoric”, and unaware at this point that I had been blocked, some further assistance was offered in the quest to get at the truth of his Labour policy assertion. Which, by now, were taking on the clear appearance of rhetoric, not facts:
That was followed up by a promise that if he was able to point me to that policy then it would be followed up immediately. A big story of a major ‘cover-up’ by those against whom he was most frequently active and a real feather in the Chronic Oldham cap, one might assume?
But given the ever lengthening gap between his initial, confident statement of wrongdoing by Cllr Fielding, and the invitations to back it up, the clear inference was drawn that Chronic Oldham was ‘plaiting fog’ as we say in the West Riding. There was no such Labour Party policy and, to considerable relief, there was no egg on the face of this investigative journalist. On this occasion, at least.
The Twitter exchange was concluded by this post, once it became apparent that Chronic Oldham had pulled down the shutters and he had been exposed as yet another Council critic not above inventing allegations, it seems, in order to smear one of his principal targets. One might hope that after such a humiliation he might take a little more care in the future?
It would also, presumably, be beyond hope that he might actually do the decent thing and apologise to Sean Fielding?
Damon Ashworth could not be approached directly for comment. Although he runs a content-rich website (see here) there is no email contact provided. Described elsewhere as ‘a motion graphics designer and video editor’, the high spot of the Video section of the Chronic Oldham site is an unedited (and unpixelated) clip of a physical confrontation between a young male-female couple in Oldham town centre.
He was previously a clerk with a specialist insurance provider, with whom he fell into serious dispute. In 2013, he launched a petition to remove Jim McMahon as Leader of Oldham Council (read here). Given how poorly it was framed, the petition, unsurprisingly, attracted just 21 supporters.
The Chronic Oldham Facebook posts appear to attract the same class of social media ‘trolls’ that populate the Oldham Eye, Oldham Heart and Recusant Nine platforms.
UPDATE: Some hours after the publication of this article, and without any attempt to contact its author, Damon Ashworth belatedly posted on Twitter his justification of the allegation of misconduct levelled at the council leader. In the interim period, alleged breach of Labour Party policy had mutated into breach of guidance to Members regarding online and offline abuse. An odd choice, one might say, as the question of abusing another person appears not to have been in issue. Either in person, or on social media.
Subsequently, Cllr Fielding was contacted, via the Oldham Council portal, and has, helpfully, provided this statement:
“I understand that the conduct to which Mr Ashworth objects, and which he believes is in breach of the section of the code of conduct to which he refers, was the subject of a number of complaints to the Labour Party some months ago. I know this as the complainants told me of their intention to complain or, in at least one case, copied me in to their correspondence with the Labour Party.
Given that I have had no contact from the Labour Party requesting that I respond to any such allegations of misconduct I can only assume that they were found to have no merit and dismissed at the first stage.”
This is a developing news story and will be updated. Follow Neil Wilby on Twitter here, on LinkedIn here and on Facebook here.
Page last updated: Tuesday 9th March, 2021 at 1445 hours
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