Ombudsman won’t probe Sheffield Council claims it can’t stop councillors running abusive fake Twitter accounts

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A Government ombudsman has declined to investigate Sheffield Council after the authority ruled it would not discipline any councillor who ran a fake social media profile to abuse members of the public and political opponents.

The decision from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman comes after the authority said last year “it was not definitively clear” a Labour councillor called Neale Gibson had been running a Twitter account under the name ‘John Blake’ which repeatedly sent derogatory messages to anti-tree felling campaigners and the city’s Lord Mayor, Green Party councillor Magid Magid.

Coun Neale Gibson.

Coun Neale Gibson.

There is no suggestion Coun Gibson has any connection to the account and he today again denied any involvement with it.

Sheffield Council won’t act on fake Twitter accounts

The council added that even if the account had been his, such behaviour would have been in a private capacity and therefore fall outside the scope of the code of conduct for elected officials.

After the matter was raised by complainant Sally Goldsmith with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, the body has now decided it is “unlikely” any investigation would find fault with the way the council had reached its ruling.

The ombudsman’s response to her cited a recent Local Government Ethical Standards report, which has recommended that behaviour on social media should be included in any councils future code of conduct. Its ruling, which referred to Ms Goldsmith as ‘Ms Y’, said: “Unless there is fault by the Council in the way it made its decision not to investigate, we cannot question its decision. I have not seen evidence of such fault. Notwithstanding this, the personal injustice caused to Ms Y is not at a level that would warrant our involvement. We will not investigate as it is unlikely the council is at fault and Ms Y is not caused significant injustice.”

Ms Goldsmith said she was disappointed with the outcome and the current rules. “It sets a precedent. If Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May or anybody in high public office did the same thing there would be a furore. Why is it different for local representatives who should be open, transparent and honest?”

Since being set up in March 2017, the @johnbwalkley account had sent tweets to the Lord Mayor calling him “a disgrace” and “an idiot”, accused tree protesters of racially abusing an Amey worker and referred to the campaigners as “tree hugger thugs”.

The account, which was deleted from Twitter in December, was initially set up using a stock photo of a middle-aged model taken from the internet before this was changed to an image of a tree.

Councillor Gibson, who represents the Walkley ward and is cabinet adviser for transport and development, told The Yorkshire Post today that the ‘John Blake’ account was run by one of his constituents under a false name.

“I have no connection with the John Blake account except that I know the person who had this account and as I have always said they had no connection to me, except to be one of my constituents,” he wrote in an email exchange.

“I’m happy that the Ombudsman has also found that there is nothing to investigate in this case.”

When The Yorkshire Post asked to meet the person behind the account, Coun Gibson said this would not be possible.

“From the very beginning I asked ‘John Blake’ to speak out publicly but he has always maintained that he would not as because of his view expressed on Twitter, he felt that certain groups of people in the city would target him.

“He obviously doesn’t use his own name on Twitter for the reason that he saw how I was attacked and wanted to speak freely without fear.”

Coun Gibson said he had met the person behind the account twice at his constituency surgeries.

Sheffield Council did not respond to a request for comment.