Political Twitter

Lewisham Cllr Mike Harris writes in the Guardian today about his Kafkaesque experiences with the Lewisham Council standards board, after he was reported for his use of Twitter during last summer's riots. Apparently, the best online record of the episode is this page on Brockley Central, which the Guardian article links to.

We recall his tweets and some of the objections at the time and in our opinion and, more importantly, the opinion of the standards board, he did nothing wrong. It's true enough that riots followed his warnings, but given that riots kicked off all over town without his help, we think his words are best described as prescient, rather than inflammatory.

The bigger issue is whether cases like this discourage Councillors from expressing themselves via channels like Twitter. Social media is the best thing that has ever happened to local politics, creating an instant direct link between voters and their representatives. It would be a shame if instances like this one were to inhibit the growth of digital democracy and it would be good to see a few more of our elected representatives bothering to use social media to tell us what they are up to on our behalf.


Bill Ellson said...


In that Cllr Harris would have known which tweets were complained about and the nature of the complaint I am somewhat inclined to doubt your familiarity with the works of Mr Kafka.

Apart from your link to 'this page on Brockley Central' being another link to the Guardian article, it might have helped if you had re-read the post and the first few comments. If you had you would have realised that it is anything but a record of the episode.

"We recall his tweets" Quite frankly Nick, I doubt it. If you did recall the tweets complained of you would realise that Cllr Harris's link to your blog claiming "you can read my tweets here" is completely misleading as the tweets complained of did not appear on your blog then or since.

As for "more importantly, the opinion of the standards board, he did nothing wrong." Firstly it was not the Standards Board, but a LB Lewisham committee (or sub-committee) and they did not express the opinion that Cllr Harris "did nothing wrong". As with the works of Mr Kafka I am inclined to doubt your familiarity with the opinion of said committee.

You call Cllr Harris's tweets prescient, I call them irresponsible and the committee called them "misguided". All a matter of opinion, but do please try and get the basic facts right.

Brockley Nick said...

Bill, cut to the chase. What were the tweets that you regard as reckless. Specifically, please post them here - so we can see what you regard as irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

Let's see the tweets!

Cllr Mike Harris said...

Bill has also taken the time to accuse me on Comment Is Free of suggesting a time and place for looters to meet which is disgraceful.
I retweeted an image doing the rounds of a Blackberry message that was being sent around saying there would be trouble. I also sent this intelligence to the police.

It's a shame when people have agendas.

Anonymous said...

I checked out Bill's comments on the original blog post, he sounds like he has an issue - or perhaps is a member of the Conservation Zone Guild of Sky Dish Spotters

Bill Ellson said...


In that you have to ask me what the tweets were, my point about your recollection is proven.


As I commented on CiF 'Your memory seems to be letting you down very badly.'. Are you seriously trying to tell us that you were not aware of the details of the complaint against you? The complaint clearly set out (cut and paste) a text tweet you sent just after 4.00pm on the day in question giving Lewisham Station at 4.00pm as a place for looters to meet (which did refer to a message circulating on blackberry). I do not recall whether you tweeted an image of the blackberry message, if you did then it was in addition to the tweet complained of.

Before commenting on CiF and here I checked the complaint, made at about 4.30pm that day.

In your Guardian piece you state that you were "accused of inciting riots", again your memory lets you down the complaint (although done in haste) referred to you talking "up the possibility of riots in Lewisham." (The complaint was made before anything actually kicked off.)

As you know I could have chosen to remain anonymous, but I did not do so. You know who I am and you and we have been in contact regarding other matters on Twitter in the intervening time.

You could have raised the matter with me, but instead in order to add a personal touch to an otherwise reasonable point about councillors misusing the system to score points off of each other you referred to the events of last year without properly checking the records from the time.

Might I respectfully suggest that you now do so.

Cllr Mike Harris said...

Bill, you have an axe to grind. By reporting me to the Standards Board rather than speaking to me directly - you showed your intent. And wasted taxpayers' money.

I tweeted to let people know what a small group intent on criminality were planning, and within hours my warning came to pass. I also let the police know. I think that's responsible.

And my article was hardly personal, I didn't mention you. Nor would I, that would clearly be unfair

Danja said...

Mr Justice Beatson, not Beaton, but as it is the Guardian...

Brockley Nick said...


It was a simple request. I just wanted you to post the particular tweets you objected to (and perhaps explain your reasoning), so we could judge them and see what the issue was for ourselves. I recall the Tweets fine, thank you. I don't know why you won't post them here.

Frankly, I'm less interested in your objections to Mike's tweets than I am in the question of how we get more cllrs on to Twitter, but since you are so keen for us to "get the facts right" it seems only right that you should present "the facts" to us.

A Toerag said...

Personally I follow Cllr Harris SPECIFICALLY to get tips of where to meet up to cause violent disorder and not to read about boring council bussiness or freedom of speech issues.

ODP said...

Why are people expecting transparency from a politician??

Lou Baker said...


This has made me very very angry.

Spurious complaints like these must be treated with the contempt they deserve.

Mike - you should speak to a libel lawyer.

Anonymous said...

In Lewisham with a significant Labour majority on the council, the online presence of Councillors has waned.

The Mayor created a cabinet post for one of his cronies to deal with 'communicating' with the public.

Apart from official council or party websites I acn't recall that cabinet member getting down and dirty communicating with his constituents via local forums.

Back in 2004/2005 the last time Labour had a massive majority on the council a local newspaper editor complained the party had a tight grip on its councillors.

Maybe we've returned to those days?

Our councillors seem to forget Lewisham has a directly elected Mayor that is supposed to free them to be able ro publicly challenge the Mayor's decisions in and out of the council chamber.

Because they see the Mayor as 'one of us' or 'their man' fundemental questions councillors should be asking on behalf of council tax payers are not raised.

Take Lewisham Central for example, the most shocking thing about this ward is the lack of questions regarding 'Lewisham Gateway', a project that was due to begin in January 2006.

Here we have the biggest project in Lewisham costing £250m and councillors seemingly not showing any concern or interest.

Anonymous said...

And of course councillors would never raise questions to the Mayor, that are a waste of money and are solely asked to present their Mayor in a good light.

Anonymous said...

"This has made me very very angry"

Kind of your default mood from what I can tell by your spluttering outrage on everything from art galleries to teenagers on wheeled planks.

max said...

They surely alerted those constituents that wanted to keep out of potential danger. I'm not on twitter but I guess that many of those that follow him would have been happy to know.

And if one thinks that those tweets may have helped create the riots them surely we should also consider the possiblity that they saved Lewisham by alerting the police of the impending danger.

But I agree that a lot of online communication has waned since last elections, with Mike Harris a bit of an exception, and for that he shoud be commended, not reported to the authorities. Aren't you tired of local politicians ever so careful about every word they say?

Brockley Nick said...

@Max agree. And I do think the problem is Labour's current dominance of the Council. It's bound to lead to some degree of complacency. Locally, Cllr Foxcroft and Cllr Johnson are pretty good, but there's not much other online engagement.

I guess there is also the suspicion that Twitter, et al are for the bourgeois minority that a) don't represent the majority of Lewisham voters and b) don't constitute the core local Labour electorate.

But these are tools that deliver real scale of communication, are heavily adopted by the most politically active people in the borough and are piss-easy to use (ridiculous complaints from the public notwithstanding), so they really are missing a trick.

Anonymous said...

That's the thing though, Nick. Real Brockley doesn't work in PR or particularly even have a nice office job or smartphone - therefore is unlikely to use twitter.

Engage on that.

Brockley Nick said...

"That's the thing though, Nick. Real Brockley doesn't work in PR or particularly even have a nice office job"

Agreed, the slim majority of local residents of working age probably aren't working in office jobs.

"or smartphone - therefore is unlikely to use twitter."

But here's where you're wrong. Smartphone penetration is very high and - as all the handwringing about Twitter and smartphone use in the wake of the riots demonstrated, people from all walks of life use these technologies, which are becoming ubiquitous.

If you want to see for yourself, here's a little experiment. Search Twitter for Lewisham and / or Brockley and see for yourself the range of people and conversations you see when you do.

"Engage on that."

Quite so.

Mb said...

Says anon responding on a blog. knocking on doors, flyers, public meetings, adverts, tweets, blogs. They are all communication tools and politically neutral. are you more likley to grab the attention of a 17yr old on the verge of getting the vote via Twitter or by a fusty public meeting? are you likley to get the attention of a 75yr old gardener through a flyer slipped in a copy gardeners weekly or Twitter? they are a ll "real" (whatever that means) but engage with the world in different ways.

Mind you, some people just randomly post boneheaded trollish comments while chuckling to them selves about their satirical brilliance.

mb said...

...and grafitti, don't forget the graffiti ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yes I am an anon posting on a blog. However I am also a community leader posting on behalf of Real Brockley.

The riots were organised via Blackberry messenger. Their phones aren't so smart these days. If you've ever tried to use Twitter on one you'll see why.

Anonymous said...

Blimey, Anon 9.57 needs to get down to the phone stores in Lewisham to see it's 'real Brockley' that are at the front of the queue when it comes to buying smartphones.

I see Olly Cromwell has been banged to rights.

Anonymous said...

Surely there are better ways for a Cllr to inform the police than publicly on twitter?

I understand there are communication channels twix the police and council, which was the subject of complaint by a counciillor at a recent council meeting.

Anonymous said...

Dear 'Real Brockley'
To test your theory I went on twitter on my BB found the tweet for this post, clicked through and read the post and comments on my phone - so not sure what exactly you mean when you say that twitter doesn't work on smartphones?
Also, as a member of 'Real Brockley' (does it count that I've lived here all my life, or are there some other secret criteria I don't know about?) I don't recall asking you to post on my behalf...

Anonymous said...

On the night didn't Brockley Central carry reports of a mob of EDL type peeps marching to 'defend' Lewisham, which were inaccurate?

Having planted 'rumours' on social networks it's amazing how quickly on tweeter they can become 'fact' merely on their re-tweeting.

mb said...

An anonymous "community leader" who shuns one of the most dynamic and easy to use comunication methods going, especially amongst young people who were doing or could be drawn into disorder. I'd get another job personally, I'd vote you out but I susspect you're self appointed. No idea who you are or who you claim to represent.

Lived in london all my life, SE4 for 10yrs. Not sure if i'm real or faux Brockley.

Anonymous said...

I represent the community.

Anonymous said...

No, I represent the community - who are you?

Brockley Nick said...

@11:12: Not that night no, but on a later day, for about five mins, we reported the reports that were flying about and then were able to confirm that they were false shortly afterwards, thanks to the mass of BC readers providing us with information.

Look back to the comments on the thread linked to in this article and you will see lots of people thanking the BC team for providing some of the most reliable coverage of what was going on at a local level.

Anonymous said...

I heard there was a gang of Mung Bean Elite marching on Coulgate St to loot hummus. That was noticeably shushed up afterwards. FULL DISCLOSURE?

Lou Baker said...

In a first - and hopefully last - I actually agree with MB.

It feels dirty.

Anyway - Twitter, text, Facebook, email. If you are a community leader and do not use these means of communication then you're a nutter. Faster, cheaper, easier, more convenient and more interactive than posters and flyers.

And most people use at least one of them. Yes there are a few - mainly old - folk who don't. Keep your flyers for them. But for the rest of us save some hassle and cash and Tweet.


Citizen of SE4 said...

I'm part of the community, you may or may not represent me. I don't you know who you are so can't tell.

The difficulty is that even people you don't like or disagree with are part of the community in that you affect them and visa versa.

If people didn't affect you or you them then this discussion would be irrelevent.

None of this is difficult so stop being a knobber....whoever you are.

Anonymous said...

ZING! Are you Little or Large?

Anonymous said...

That was too the houmous gag-meister!

max said...

I thought of the opposite case, imagine that a riot did happen on that day in that spot and unaware local residents got caught and injured because despite having the information Cllr Mike Harris didn't put it out on twitter.

Brockley Nick said...

Up until last year, we used to have one of these "only a few white middle class luvvies read BC" debates every week or so, but that argument's largely been put to bed as the weight of evidence proving otherwise is irrefutable. However, for Real Brockley's benefit, here are some stats worth pointing out.

The population of Brockley is approx 20,000.

The population of Brockley Central Twitter is approx 3700. Allowing for the fact that approx 700 of those will be friends, contacts, journalists and other randoms, that still means that the Twitter feed alone reaches 15% of the local population.

The site gets nearly 2,000 visits a day from over 1,000 unique visitors a day. That means 5% of Brockley is looking at the site every day.

Over the course of its lifetime, the site has attracted nearly 500,000 unique visitors - twice the number of people who live in the entire borough. Although we can't be specific about how many of those are local, it is reasonable to assume, given that hardly any traffic comes from outside the UK and nearly all of the traffic comes from search terms relevant to the area, our Twitter and Facebook feeds or other local websites, that the vast majority of those readers are London based and that we have at one time or another reached nearly everyone in the area with access to an internet connection.

During the riots, our visit number peaked at over 45,000 visits in one day.

Across all platforms (including Facebook and the forum), our reach grows steadily as we work towards our ultimate aim of connecting the Greater Brockley area.

Now THAT is Real Brockley...

Further reading:


CPR said...

@ Bill - The question wasn't where the tweets are, he asked which tweets you objected to (i.e. care to post them).

I don't know who you are but your response speaks volumes:

If your key issue is with the tweets then post them and lets discuss them. Otherwise you just come across as a bitter mud-slinger.

And I would certainly consider it Kafkaesque to be put on trial for a public warning of violence being interpreted as an incitement to violence:

If, to warn you, I retweeted a post by one of Cllr Harris henchmen (this is hyperthetical) that they were massing outside your house ready to attack, would you report me for inciting violence?

With online media there is a fine line between warning of something, exacerbating something and inciting something.

To label Cllr Harris's tweets categorically as incitement seems way over the top. Whether the media in general exacebated the problem is open to debate, but if thats your opinion then the BBC did the real damage.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about anyone else, but Bill's messages are personally inciting me to violence right now...

Anonymous said...

Where did Bill go?

Cllr Mike Harris said...

Bill is working hard writing his 9000 page dossier on "local enemies" to Lewisham Council's standards board.


Anonymous said...

Councillor use of social media is a vexed issue - whilst clearly it does provide an excellent new opportunity for Cllrs better to engage with (esp. younger) electors/residents, it at the same time opens up a can of worms with plenty of potential for inappropriate on-line conduct, so Cllrs have to be careful. Or maybe not, because with the demise of the current standards regime on 1 July, local standards committees (where retained) will have no sanction - against Cllrs who breach the new, slimmed-down, model Cllr Code of Conduct - beyond a stern ticking off. So they'll be on their best behavious right? Hmmm. Even in the (unlikely) event the political group were to withdraw the whip, the Cllr in question would not, of course, have to stand down. So pretty much open season now for the bullying, rude Cllr. One positive - Cllrs who fail to disclose personal and prejudicial interests will be guilty of a criminal offence.

Anonymous said...

See earlier comments re tweets repeated on this website re a mob coming to Lewisham to 'defend' it.

Now it turned out to be a load of baloney and the police were already dealing with the so called mob.

Tweeter is like a school playground where kids hang around eagerly waiting for a fight rumoured to be about to happen.

I assume Cllr Harris has no way of knowing who may have picked up his tweets that night and how they have interpreted them.

Exciteable people looking for action may merely passed on to their buddies 'it's kicking off big time in Lewisham'.

If similar tweets had been made by a councillor of the right with anti immigration stance then I'm sure the balme for the 'mob' coming to 'defend' Lewisham would have been place in the hands of that councillor.

Brockley Nick said...

Can anyone explain why - unless a Cllr breaks any laws or tries to incite hatred - there should be any rules governing what they say? With due respect to Cllr Harris, who cares what he says? He's not the PM, the Chief of Police or the Head of the CDC. If a Cllr says daft things on Twitter then his party colleagues can tell him off, the media can laugh at him and the voters can choose to ignore him at the ballot box.

By all means give them guidelines for best practice, but don't censure them for speaking out of turn.

Brockley Community Leader said...

Because with great power comes great responsibility and I remind myself of this always.

Cllr Mike Harris said...

I totally agree with Nick.

What is true is that no two people on this forum could decide a set of guidelines for what a Councillor (or any politician for that matter) should and should not be able to say. That's why the rules don't work, because democracy by its very nature is pluralistic and any attempt to define the boundaries of acceptable discourse will always be bound to fail.

Anonymous said...

Nick...the same reason Rebekah Brookes is giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry today?

Is there any evidence her emails, chats, dealings etc with politicians were illegal?

MPs, one who was a former Leader of Lewisham Council felt they were doing nothing wrong regarding expenses because they had sort advice from the office that approves claims.

So it is evident what in many cases what was against the code of conduct and in some cases illegal had become acceptable normal practice.

Therefore parliamentry officers were likely to refute any claims made by the public regarding MPs misuse of expenses.

It wasn't till MPs expenses had a light shone on their expenses that action was taken and MPs suddenly found their moral compass and repaid certain sums. For some MPs their claims were found to be illegal.

In Lewisham we have a directly elected Mayor who says he has no
responsibility for councillors, so when concerns were raised about a Lewisham Central councillor living 400 miles away the Mayor could brush it away.

For 12 months this was brushed under the carpet, suddenly the Mayor & then Deputy Mayor publicly denounced that councillor but an excellent local journalist located the councillor and spun the tables on our elected local leaders.

To me an elected Mayor with a massive majority of like minded souls as councillors is a dangerous combination for democracy.

I believe this filters through to the administration side of the council and when it comes to questionable matters they are likely to err on the side of the Mayor.

Anonymous said...

Over the years a number of local councillors have contributed to this and other community forums.

In that time I can only think of one councillor that made the papers due to their comments and it was collogues of Cllr Harris who tried to stir up trouble.

In the short peried Cllr Harris has been on the council I believe has now twice been involved in controversy re his comments?

Maybe the cllr should consider counting to 10 and re-reading his comments before clicking the send button?

As for standards....Vince Cable didn't say anything illegal when he told to brazen hussies he'd declared war on the Murdoch's. Yet he had to withdraw from deciding the future of BSkyB.

He was replaced by Jeremy Hunt who openly took a positive attitude towards the Murdochs and BSkyB.
Recently his communications with the Murdoch side were revealed, there is no suggestion of any illegality.

Yet questions have been raised as to whether he breached the 'Ministerial Code of Conduct'.

Depending on your viewpoint will probably decide if you feel a complaint is justified against one or other of these MPs.

Anonymous said...

To punish Roman legions the Caesars would line the soldiers up and kill every tenth man.

There is a lot of waste at Lewisham council.

Anonymous said...

I note Councillor Harris...is Vice Chair of the council, whatever that means.

Could his position mean he is expected to act more thoughtfully before putting thoughts in print?

Anonymous said...

I see Cllr Harris sits on the Overview and Scrutiny Select Committee which in February discussed .... "Operational Experience of the August 2011 Public Disorder"

I see the chair of that committee is Cllr Alan Hall whose public utterances got him into a spat with David Michael.

Anonymous said...

As stated before why did Cllr Harris rely on twitter to convey his concerns to the police?

From the report to the council re the disturbances...

Lewisham had a virtual Borough Emergency Control Centre up and
running with pertinent managers, reporting in to the gold meetings and using the Emergency Planning team as a co-ordination point.

There was a lot of information from staff re proposed demonstrations/activity – this was automatically fed to Crime and then Police and this continued throughout the period.

Where services closed early, this was based on intelligence and risk

Maybe Cllr Harris should have doned a superhero's outfit and taken to the streets rather than tweeter?

Brockley Nick said...

@The Anons on about Brookes, Cable et al.

1. I have never said that what people say or do does not matter does not matter - of course it does and there should be consequences.

2. I have asked why there is any need for a special, arbtirary, vague, easily-abused code of conduct governing the utterances of Cllrs?

Take the Cable example:

Firstly, he said what he did in private conversation - do you want a special code to enforce what Cllrs say in private?

Secondly: No special code was necessary to recognise that what he said compromised his official role and for action to be taken.

Thirdly: To use a direct comparison, if a Cllr was mouthing off (in the flesh or online) in advance of a planning committee hearing, to say they hated the developer and were going to make sure that the planning application failed, they would be booted off that committee instantly (and I suppose, probably subject to a number of other possible sanctions).

Again, no special code of conduct required.

Cllr Mike Harris said...

Why can't those posting anonymous comments have the strength of their convictions and post in their own name?

Brockley Nick said...

Or even spell out what their point is, rather than saying "I see" or "I note" or asking "why" - almost as though they don't quite have a point but by "asking questions" they insinuate some sort of unspecified wrong doing.

Cllr Mike Harris said...

...like some sort of low-rent Woodward and Bernstein about to find Lewisham Council's "smoking gun". But never quite getting there. Just throwing mud around.

Perhaps you should publish IPs ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that Cllr Harris is enjoying having the damp embers of his ego fanned by this story.

Brockley Dogging Society - Media Standards Board said...

Not as much as the Anon's hate having their ludicrous insinuations laughed out of court.

Anonymous said...

If this is digital democracy. You can shove it.

Anonymous said...

Is it not fact Cllr Harris is vice chair of Lewisham Council?

Is is not a fact Cllr Harris is on the Scrutiny Committee?

Is is not fact Cllr Hall is chair of the Scrutiny committee and his public utterences in 2009 provoked a strong response from David Michael?

Nick doesn't your response to those facts confirm what was indicated earlier about interpretation from people with diffrent perspectives?

Some people might feel the vice chair of the Council should be responsible and think before tweetering on a higly charged evening.

Nick you agree there should consequences and in this case they were an a standards committee investigation.

I assume the role of the Scrutiny Committee is to investigate and pass judgements...and I'm sure some of those being scrutinised and judged feel it was unwarranted and a waste of council tax payers money....but I'm sure the committee felt it was right and proper.

I don't understand what Cllr Harris was moaning about in the Guardian, apparently pointing to tweets which weren't the subject of complaint and making it sound like he was to be staked out naked on Hilly Fields and ravaged by dogs.

Brockley Dogging Society said...


Brockley Nick said...

"Nick doesn't your response to those facts confirm what was indicated earlier about interpretation from people with diffrent perspectives?"

I have no response to those facts other than to ask people to say what their point is.

"I assume the role of the Scrutiny Committee is to investigate and pass judgements...and I'm sure some of those being scrutinised and judged feel it was unwarranted and a waste of council tax payers money....but I'm sure the committee felt it was right and proper."

I'm sure the committee felt their own existence was worthwhile, yes. No one has explained what purpose this extra layer of bureaucracy serves that is not otherwise met.

You still haven't explained why it's a good idea.

Cllr Mike Harris said...

To be completely clear to the anonymous commentator -- the Standards Board have to look at every complaint. They threw the complaint out as having no merit. My article points out the cost of this procedure and the fact the framework is so broad.

As for thinking before I tweet - I did - and still considered this important enough to merit broader dissemination.

Anonymous said...

"Why can't those posting anonymous comments have the strength of their convictions and post in their own name?"

We are concerned that the binmen won't turn up!

Anonymous said...

Nick wrote....

'....almost as though they don't quite have a point but by "asking questions" they insinuate some sort of unspecified wrong doing...'

No response to the facts?

Anonymous said...

Does the Guardian article point to the actual twitters complained of, yes or no?

Is the complaint available for public consumption and is the response publicly available?

Anonymous said...

If anyone wants to link to specific tweets, click on the time at the bottom which will bring it up as a linkable url.

Until then, the complainers aren't linking and the mungs aren't going to go to the trouble.

Anonymous said...

No one cares, it's a non issue.

Anonymous said...

No one cares?

Let's look at the stats

Political Twitter = 68 comments
Chalwood Nursery School = 6
Crofton Library = 7

A local resident cared enough to complain and a local councillor cared enough to write an article for the Guardian.

Anonymous said...

Anon 21:08

I would have thought if someone is going to write an article drawing attention to trival complaints you'd think they'd reproduce or link to the actual tweeter to demonstrate how trivial the complaint was?

Nick wrote....

Apparently, the best online record of the episode is this page on Brockley Central...

But the complainant says it isn't as it does not include the offending tweeter.

It would be good if either side would provide the original tweet that was complained of and a copy of the judgement that was made.

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