Carmarthenshire blogger arrest: how we broke the story

On Wednesday my colleague Graeme Wilkinson and I were at a full meeting of Carmarthenshire Council. We knew it had the potential to be newsworthy on a local level because campaigners were presenting a 1,500-strong petition to stop the closure of Llandeilo Day Club.

But this was overshadowed by the arrest of blogger Jacqui Thompson, who tried to film the meeting from the public gallery.

My story on #DaftArrest (a hashtag devised by lawyer and New Statesman legal correspondent David Allen Green) has since been followed up by two national papers and countless bloggers.

Set against a backdrop of the wider debate about bloggers and council transparency, it looks set to run and run.

I was on the steps of County Hall and saw the events unfold. You can read about what happened here - but below is how we broke the story, and how the week has progressed:

Blogger Jacqui Thompson is arrested at Carmarthen County Hall. Picture by Alexander Smith

The main item on the council’s agenda that day, as far as we were concerned, was the petition to save Llandeilo Day Club. Graeme was covering the meeting, but about an hour after he had gone to County Hall a contact rang me to say Jacqui Thompson, who regularly criticises the council on her Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog, had just been arrested in the chamber.

All of our photographers were on jobs so I grabbed one of the office compact snappers and ran the (thankfully) short distance to County Hall.

There were two police cars already in the car park. Carmarthen Unison branch secretary Mark Evans had left the meeting and was on the steps lamenting what he thought had been a fairly unsuccessful morning, the petition had but glossed over with no debate.

I can’t have been on the steps longer than five minutes when four police officers led Mrs Thompson, in cuffs, round the side of the building. They didn’t see me coming, but I only managed to take one photo before the blonde officer (pictured, right) grabbed my arm and tried to take the camera. I wriggled free and explained I was from the Journal. After showing my press pass I asked them what the arrest was for. One of the male officers replied: “That’s none of your business.”

I went back to the office, put in calls to the council and police, and started putting something together for next week’s paper (published the following Wednesday). I used Graeme’s quotes from inside the chamber. I also wrote a side-panel on UK Coalition attempts to reform policy on citizen journalists recording meetings (based on this letter local government secretary Bob Neill wrote to English authorities in February).

I did write a short piece for our sister paper, The South Wales Evening Post, which was published online the next day. But I thought we would be OK to hold off publishing the full story until we went to print.

But when I got a DM and then a phone-call from David Allen Green, of the New Statesman, saying he wanted to write something on the arrest and link to whatever we published online, it became increasingly clear the story wouldn’t hold.

Mrs Thompson then DMed me saying she had just spoken to the Telegraph, so we decided to publish online what we had immediately.

The story has since been followed up by The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, as well as blog posts by Richard Wilson and tweets from Ben Goldacre. David Allen Green said he will post an analysis on his New Statesman page, questioning the actions of both the council and police.

Blogger Mike Rawlins has taken this one step further. He is asking people to submit their experiences of council heavy handedness and plans to publish a data spreadsheet of the results.

The incident has even sparked interest from Carmarthenshire’s erstwhile uninterested neighbour, Swansea. Tory council leader René Kinzett recently tweeted he has written to Dyfed-Powys Police chief constable Ian Arundale to complain.

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7 Comments on “Carmarthenshire blogger arrest: how we broke the story”

  1. Photon says:

    Thanks for your valuable coverage. Like many others, I’ve done what I can – including writing to Carl Sargeant and Mark Isherwood, about the unacceptable situation with arbitrary ejection of non-disruptive people from public meetings.

  2. [...] whilst we wait David has tweeted and pointed us towards a blog by Alexander Smith describing how his newspaper broke the story and something in that piece was extremely [...]

  3. Well covered. I have twitted this a few times and I am keen to see the issue raised further. Whilst my local council have allowed both I and another blogger to take pictures and blog from council meetings, they did so only after we sent them the letter from Bob Neill and put them on 72 hours notice of our plans to take pictures and blog. However, Hampshire County Council will not allow this to happen at their meetings and ejected BBC (South) Political Editor, Peter Henley from one of their meetings for trying to cover it. As for the Police trying to take your camera. The Police have NO RIGHTS to take anyone’s camera from them unless they are arressted. Makes no difference if you have a Press Card or not.!!

  4. [...] Carmarthenshire blogger arrest: how we broke the story « Alexander Smith Alexander Smith was a reporter at the scene of Jacqui Thompson's arrest at Carmarthenshire County Council. This story reflects badly not only on the county council, but also on the local constabulary. No laws have actually been broken here. The force's press office should be on the ball with reaction and comment. This has become a national story and lack of response makes them look inadequate. After seeing the YouTube footage of the meeting, it does seem as though the whole situation was blow up by the chairman. Probably a long-serving councillor who enjoys the sound of his own voice. Those of us who have worked in local and regional journalism will know the type. If the blonde police officer has managed to grab Alexander Smith's camera, the story would have taken another turn for the worse. (tags: daftarrest localgovernment filming journalism localnews teaching) [...]

  5. Mark says:

    That police officer assaulted you. Maybe next time you should grab her arm and see how fast you end up in prison?

  6. Dic Dyffryn says:

    It’s been quite a week, and this is a really good example of the value of the local press to local democracy. It took the BBC the best part of a week to catch up, even though they have offices just a few minutes away from County Hall. Great reporting.

    Time to take stock of where we are now. There are three main players:

    1. Carmarthenshire County Council – there is no sign whatever that the council will shift its position. Unless there are more incidents and possibly larger scale civil disobedience, the council’s policy is just to sit it out in the bunker and hope the whole thing goes away.
    2. Dyfed Powys Police – the ball is now largely in Mrs Thompson’s court. She will have to decide if she wants to make a formal complaint based on the anaylsis of David Allen Green from the New Statesman.
    3. The only place where there is just a glimmer of hope that change may be brought about is over in Cardiff. The new Labour administration is already under fire for its apparent lethargy as it begins a new 5 year term. Its decision to sit on its hands and parrot the line that it’s up to the councils to decide is great ammunition for the opposition. Just letting things drift on and allowing Welsh councils to behave like private members clubs with all the malpractice and abuse of power that goes on is surely not a goal the opposition parties can afford to miss. In fact Carmarthenshire will interpret the WAG’s indifference as vindication of its autocratic policies.

  7. This whole incident is an utter disgrace.

    Did she make a complaint to professional standards? Who can you complain to about a council?


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