Sir Harry’s sinking ship takes on more water

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Beleaguered Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, already swamped with other scandals, most notably around its shockingly poor handling of historic child sexual exploitation, has spectacularly reversed its policy around the archiving of its broadcasts of public meetings, with videos of the sessions now restored to its own YouTube channel.

Just ten days ago, in news published exclusively on this website (read in full here), it was revealed that a decision to remove all the videos had been taken, by its executive management team, without consultation with the Council Leader, Cllr Amanda Chadderton, or any of the Group Leaders of the opposition parties. 

In a statement that can best be described as a ‘whitewash’, given what the author of this article, Neil Wilby, knows about the background to the decision to remove the archive, Oldham Council’s increasingly exposed chief executive, Harry Catherall, said:

“A review has been completed of the council’s policies and procedures around public meetings, including webcasting and webhosting of videos.

“During this period, recordings of meetings were temporarily taken offline, to ensure the meetings were reviewed thoroughly and any evidence to support criminal proceedings were reviewed and captured.

“All council recordings have now been reinstated online for people to view.

“In Oldham, we remain absolutely committed to full transparency and the democratic process, and continue to make these meetings accessible to members of the public and media.”

The last paragraph from ‘Sir Harry’, in particular, irks considerably in the light of what is known about this shambolic process. If the full truth could be revealed, and there are health and safety and confidentiality issues in play that militate very strongly against that eventuality, there would be very considerable outrage at what is another clumsy Council ‘cover-up’. Both transparency and the democratic process are again severe casualties in this skirmish.

Further, and in any event, the proposition advanced by ‘Sir Harry’, that the webcasts had to be taken down to enable them to be reviewed, is, taken at its face, feckless, and treats elected Members, the taxpayers whom they represent and any journalist, with even an inkling of common sense, with poorly concealed contempt.

The Council’s deputy chief executive, Sayyed Osman, entirely the wrong person, in all the circumstances, to be the public face in this issue, had, in response to a press enquiry from Neil Wilby, attempted to explain, unconvincingly, what, on any independent view, was a poorly thought out and executed decision:  

“It has sadly come to our attention that some people have been video editing and using footage from public meetings out of context. This has in our view then been used maliciously in communication to unfairly target and illicit hate and harassment towards people.

“This has meant that it was necessary to review all our policies and procedures around public meetings, including webcasting and web hosting of videos.  We value transparency and democracy and we are keen to ensure we look at best practice to get this right whilst ensuring we meet our duty of care towards our staff who are being impacted unfairly”.

That message, viewed the the lens of this investigative journalist, suggests that the review had concluded, and was not ongoing or subject to further discussion or consultation. The decision to remove the videos had been made. Like it or lump it.

Councillors from opposition parties, notably the Liberal Democrats’ and Opposition Leader, Howard Sykes MBE, were quick off the blocks. In a strongly worded letter to the chief executive, urging a rapid reconsideration, he said:

“I am deeply dismayed by this decision, which I feel represents a very unwelcome backwards step in terms of openness, accountability and trust, all at a time when we as councillors should be striving to demonstrate good practice across those three key pillars of local democracy.”

Cllr Luke Lancaster, Conservative Member for Saddleworth North and, to his credit, one of the first to notice the removal of the videos of the meetings, said in an email to the Council Leader: 

“Given recent events, I would have thought that the council would want to do everything that it could to be seen as transparent and as open as possible. 

“Instead, it seems to have taken an ill-advised decision to close down a valuable avenue of public scrutiny, without explanation.”

This public question sent in by Neil Wilby on 26th August, is set to be aired at the next Full Council meeting on 7th September, 2022 has, of course and to a significant extent, decayed:

“Does the Council Leader agree with me that the decision to remove all past recordings of Council meetings from their YouTube channel is crass, undemocratic and, rightly or wrongly, adds fuel to the CSE cover-up rhetoric. Does she also agree with me that it should be reversed at the earliest possible opportunity?”

However, the words Cllr Chadderton uses in her response are of significant public interest – and the question has not been withdrawn on that basis.

It is hoped that, privately, the Leader has exerted her authority and put Harry Catherall (and Sayyed Osman) on notice, in clear and unequivocal terms, that he must start to deliver performance, ethics and professionalism in line with the huge salary he is paid. Or, start looking for another job or thinking about a gold-plate pensioned retirement.

There is also the residual issue of whether the decision taken to remove the public meeting video archive fell within the framework of the chief executive’s delegated powers. That is to say, without consultation with Party Leaders. An interesting conundrum that will, doubtless, now get an airing in the civic chamber.

Page last updated Tuesday 6th September, 2022 at 1030hrs

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© Neil Wilby 2015-2022. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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