Chris Rigby: BCP Islamophobia and anti-Semitism rows illustrate need for councillor social media accountability

30 October 2020

"Is it OK for an elected official to post something on their private social media profile, or private chat group, that other people might find offensive?"

BCP Green Councillor Chris Rigby was interviewed on this topic by Alun Newman on BBC Radio Solent's Breakfast on 14th October 2020.

The media interest followed BCP Council's Standards Committee considering the investigator's report on a complaint made by a member of the public, over Islamophobic postings made by a Conservative councillor, which she insists were "private" and made in jest. Standards Committee was told there was no action to be taken as the code of conduct for councillors does not apply to their private lives. Chris Rigby, a member of the committee, received cross-party support when he told the meeting that the comments were still dangerous, not acceptable from a councillor, and needed to be called out. 

BCP Green Party · Chris Rigby on BBC Radio Solent: Accountability of councillors on social media

Listeners heard Chris tell Alun: "For me personally, I find it a little bit difficult. The local government authority says as councillors we have a right to a private life as well, but I believe that when you say something, regardless of who you are, you need to be held accountable.for that. So whether that's to someone's face or on social media, I believe we should still have some accountability for everything we say, particularly if it's something which people are finding very offensive.

"You've really got to think on social media, because your posts can be plucked out of context, and shared more widely, so every individual post you make, you've got to consider in its own right."

"When you share on Facebook or Twitter, it's difficult, because sometimes you think you're sharing privately among your friends. Yet if you're posting in a group that you're in, or something like that, or on someone's page, then that becomes more widely available for more people to see. And that's where our training is lacking. A lot of people aren't too familiar with social media still."

Asked whether there's a defence in saying people have a chance to see what someone is like and then vote acccordingly, Chris answered: "Of course there is. And that always comes down to the next time everyone goes to the ballot box. And that is the residents' choice, and obviously because these things are on social media, everyone is able to get there, and see, and do their own bit of research into it, and see what the context was around it. And I believe it is all available in the report as well. So it's good that that is in the public eye.

"I think anything which is public, where we are known as councillors, should be open to scrutiny."

Asked if this was likely to happen, Chris answered: "I don't know, that's not a decision for me to make. I think hopefully we can get some sort of review of the code of conduct, and have a look at that, and get some independent people in to give us some recommendations on how that can move forward." 

"We're hoping to put a working group together on that as well, and look to what changes can be made for the future."

The recent Islamophobia row was the second public complaint made to BCP Council about social media postings by councillors. Last year a Labour councillor apologised to Full Council after retweeting, without reading fully, an opinion article which contained disturbing anti-Semitic comments. The investigator's verdict for BCP Standards Committee was the same: no action could be considered because the tweet was not made in the capacity of a councillor.

Council meetings were not recorded at that time, however Chris Rigby adds now: "I deplore all racism and prejudice."

Also last year Chris Rigby spoke during a contested debate on BCP Council adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, reported in the Bournemouth Echo saying he was "surprised" to be having a debate on the topic in 2019.

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