Michael Taggart

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Local rag threatens council spinner with libel for calling it…a “local rag”

15 June 2011,   By ,   5 Comments

[UPDATED at 10.59am: Have added reference to PCC complaints against the Argus at the bottom]

Brighton & Hove council’s comms chief John Shewell has apparently been threatened with libel for referring to the the local paper, the Brighton Argus, as a “local rag” in a tweet.

(Full disclosure: I used to work with John at the council; my brother was recently news editor of the Argus).

The local rag’s thin-skinned editor Michael Beard sent him a furious email late yesterday whining that:

“…the tweet as a whole is defamatory in that it characterises The Argus (and therefore the Editor and individual members of staff) as a “rag” that carelessly or incompetently publishes false or misleading information and is not to be relied on.”

Quite apart from the fact that “local rag” is a well-worn synonym for good and poor newspapers up and down the land, I don’t have to tell you how risible this claim is. Can Mr Beard really be saying – with a straight face – that the Argus, one of the most complained about local newspapers in the PCC’s groaning inbox*, never ‘carelessly or incompetently publishes false and misleading information’?


Here’s the full email:

From: Michael Beard [mailto:michael.beard@theargus.co.uk]
Sent: 14 June 2011 18:20
To: John Shewell
Subject: RE: Tourist Tax?




Further to your email I would like to bring to your attention a press release issued by the council and also to tweets made by the authority and yourself.


In your tweet you state: “Local rag runs ridiculous line that brighton and hove city council thinking of introducing “tourist tax” er…no we’re not”.


Nowhere in our story do we say you are thinking of introducing such a tax.


In another tweet you say you “believe journo mis-quoted cllr”.


Again this is incorrect. Cllr Bowden has not been misquoted.


The city council tweet states: “”Yesterday’s Argus story about “tourism tax” is wrong


As stated above the story is not wrong.


In your press release you state:

A leading councillor has written to the Argus refuting a report that the council plans to introduce a tax on tourists.

Cabinet councillor in charge of tourism Geoffrey Bowden says in his letter:

“Following reporter James Wallin’s story on June 13 suggesting we’re considering a tourist tax, I’m happy to say we are not.

“It is not on our agenda.  Tourism taxes declared in one or two places seem like an inherently risky idea.  I’m guessing people would simply go elsewhere.  Such a tax might also discriminate against poorer families.”

You have now moved from claiming The Argus reported you were thinking of introducing a tax to stating we reported you are planning to introduce one.

Nowhere do we state you are either thinking or planning to introduce such a tax. What we do state is: “The new Green cabinet yesterday said they would investigate the creation of a tourist tax if there was support for it.”

I should also point out that the press release arrived before I spoke to Cllr Bowden. When I mentioned it to him he had no knowledge of it and had not seen it. He asked me if his name was on it and when I replied that it was he said: “Good God.” This raises questions over the press release statement that he had written to us.

Having spoken to Cllr Bowden he was happy to correct his original tweet and has published another to clarify the point.

As to your comment describing the Argus as a “local rag”, the advice from our company lawyer is that the tweet as a whole is defamatory in that it characterises The Argus (and therefore the Editor and individual members of staff) as a “rag” that carelessly or incompetently publishes false or misleading information and is not to be relied on.


Our concern is that you have spread false and insulting information about The Argus apparently designed to discredit us and our staff. I am taking advice on how to protect our employees from these unjustified attacks.


As your tweets and press release have already been picked up and broadcast I would appreciate a speedy resolution to this matter.


I look forward to hearing from you.


Michael Beard,


*The PCC Watch website catalogues newspaper ballsups, including those of the Argus (ignore references to other Argus papers, like the one in South Wales). According to my manual count-up, the Argus appears to have had more PCC interventions in Mr Beard’s time as editor than most (maybe any) other regional newspaper in the country.  I certainly can’t find a more complained-about paper.  I stand to be corrected.

And as a comparison, here’s the Birmingham Post’s complaints – a massive newspaper.

Complaints at the Argus seem to have risen steeply since about 2005. Interestingly, the Argus has had two more this year.


  • If any action is taken, i suggest we use twitter to ask followers to boycott the rag The argus is a desperate for headlines load a rubbish local newspaper, we dont need it anyway.

  • Anonymous


    Reading the original Argus story, the first couple of paragraphs do look as though this tax is being fully considered (http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/9080820.Tourist_tax_for_Brighton_and_Hove_could_generate_millions/).  This is, as I’m sure everyone is aware, a newspaper ruse to make people read the rest of the story by providing an interesting ‘hook’.  Hardly an uncommon practice even in the big nationals.
    What isn’t mentioned in the new story is that a ‘bed tax’ has been floating around since 2006 (http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/business/900489.Hotel_tax__would_be_disaster_/) although I don’t know exactly what happened to that.

    The rest of the article, to my reading anyway, is relatively clear that such a ‘tax’ might be considered if there is enough support for it.  Not that the Council are looking actively to make it happen tomorrow.

    So I have to admit that I’m slightly with Roy Greenslade on this one (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2011/jun/15/local-newspapers-twitter?CMP=twt_gu) and wonder if John’s Tweet was a tad… premature? 

    However I do think that the reaction is overly full on.  Most local papers are nicknamed ‘rags’ (even by their most ardent fans) as a nod to familiarity and the occasional “Rubbish Bin Overflows Horror” story that makes the columns.  I know plenty of people who refer to some of the big nationals as ‘rags’ with a glint in their eye and tongue firmly in their cheek.

    On the flip-side, it must also be remembered that newspapers exist to make money for their owners, pay their writers/production teams and report the news.  And in order to do this, they must sell copies.
    In order to sell copies, they must report the news in the way that readers want and, to sell more copies, they must report the news in a way that their readers want to talk about and encourage other people to buy the paper to see what all the fuss is about. (Or visit the website to get click-through revenue etc)
    (Not that I’m suggesting that newspapers and reporting are governed by financial returns at all, but it is a consideration.  Hence some of the daily national tabloids running salacious stories (which they get rightly sued for) to perk up the figures every so often).

    The complexity of the issue also comes with the tension between John’s official role and his personal Tweeting.  That, for me, is the real nugget of interest in this story.
    How far are civil servants civil servants through and through, and how far are they civil servants only until they close the office door at night, becoming regular human beings after that?

    Sure all of this will blow over one way for another.  Although, as I mentioned in a Tweet of my own earlier, I think the ‘partnership circle’ is dead now (http://interacter.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/local-government-and-the-media-%E2%80%93-a-match-made-in-brighton/)

  • Lurker

    As the argus is put together 66 miles away, is the word ‘local’ an accurate statement?

  • Pingback: Local rag in freedom of speech fury « Notes from a Broken Society()

  • Michaelcoughtrey

    Any chance of a successful libel action scotched by ‘Brighton Scandal’.

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