7th Dec, 2016

Coventry councillors set to reject Sky Blues' 'media war' complaint after 'flawed' 'whitewash' report

Les Reid 29th Nov, 2015 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

COVENTRY councillors are expected tomorrow to clear their leaders of breaking the council’s code of conduct – despite evidence of secret plans to wage a ‘media war’ with personal and intrusive public attacks against the Sky Blues ‘owners’.

It comes ahead of a separate decision over a formal complaint to the independent Local Government Ombudsman about leading councillors and senior council officers’ conduct, also submitted in May.

Evidence before councillors tomorrow appears to show how senior council figures were party to planning what one council finance officer Lisa Commane had termed a ‘media war’, ‘endorsed’ by Labour cabinet members in a private briefing, as she stated in one confidential email in December 2012.

The evidence from private emails is contained in a detailed complaint lodged to Coventry City Council in May by the Coventry City Football Club group of companies including parent company Sisu, and its boss Joy Seppala.

Many of the private emails were between staff at London PR firm Weber Shandwick – a company employed by council taxpayer-supported Arena Coventry Limited, the then half council owned Ricoh stadium company. The email evidence shows Weber Shandwick were liaising with council officers, apparently including ACL directors Chris West and Martin Reeves, who were also top Coventry council executives and remain so.

The expensive PR firm was hired in late 2012 and through 2013 to “crisis manage” the media coverage of an acrimonious dispute between the council, ACL and Coventry City Football Club’s owners over Ricoh Arena rent, revenues and ownership.

Some of the emails were copied in to senior council and Ricoh Arena officials.

But their names and much other information have been blackened out (redacted) to prevent the public and recipients from seeing it by the council, which claims it is “confidential” information.

Those emails discussed a media campaign to target Ms Seppala – and even suggested directing the media to her London home, and advise on how her home could be identified.

Her home was later targeted by some Sky Blues campaigners, and she claims it was separately broken into.

The material, now published on the council’s website, is contained in a document which also presents the findings of a council-commissioned independent investigation into Sisu’s complaint by Simon Goacher of law firm Weightmans LLP.

Mr Goacher’s report findings clear council leader Ann Lucas and her predecessor John Mutton of any wrongdoing.

Coventry City Council’s ethics committee will tomorrow (Monday, 10am) – in a meeting open to the public at the Council House – consider Sisu’s appeal against those findings.

Sisu claims that as council leaders (Coun Lucas took over from Coun Mutton in May 2013) they directly breached the council’s code in their conduct in the media and in Ricoh negotiations.

Their complaint also highlights that as council leaders they were ultimately responsible for the conduct of officers, such as Mr Reeves and Mr West.

The council’s codes of conduct obliges councillors and council officers to act with fairness, integrity, respect, honesty, openness and transparency in their dealings with the people and public, including the media.

Any prospect of councillors acting against the investigation’s findings appear remote, with Court of Appeal judges due to rule in January on whether councillors across the political divide acted unlawfully in January 2013 with a £14.4million taxpayer bailout of the Ricoh firm, Arena Coventry Limited – after the Sky Blues had withheld what many considered to be sky high £1.3million rent.

The protracted legal dispute over the Ricoh Arena resulted in councillors privately in October last year voting to sell Coventry City’s home to traditionally London-based and indebted rugby club Wasps on a secret, hugely extended 250-year lease deal not offered to the Sky Blues – angering many of its fans.

Separate legal challenges could follow January’s Court of Appeal hearing, including over the Wasps deal.

One high-profile CCFC fan, businessman and university lecturer Rob Stevens, who ran the Get Cov Back To The Ricoh campaign, said: “I hope tomorrow’s ethics committee does not end up in simply being a case of turkeys not voting for Christmas.

“The evidence available for anyone to read on the council’s website raises serious questions about standards in public life, which go way beyond our own football club.

“Most fans are simply enjoying being top of the league but will want the council to support – not hinder – the football club and its efforts to improve crucial stadium revenues to support the team, whoever owns it.”

He was among more than 20 high profile CCFC fans, who are also academics, writers, business people, lawyers and accountants – who earlier this year called for inquiries into the role of Weber Shandwick and council leaders’ misleading claims, including about the Wasps deal.

Tomorrow’s ethics committee of five councillors comprises one Tory, Allan Andrews, and four Labour councillors – Joe Clifford, Linda Bigham, John McNicholas and Damian Gannon who as a cabinet member is close to leader Ann Lucas.

The council’s protocol for handling complaints also requires further considerations including: “Whether the complaint suggests that there is a wider problem throughout the authority.”

The Coventry Observer is awaiting a council response to our question over how much taxpayers’ money was spent on the investigation which delivered what the complainants describe as a “whitewash”.

The council continues to claim it did not directly hire Weber Shandwick. But ACL was propped up by city taxpayers from January 2013.

The emails also appear to highlight the top level involvement in the media strategy of other leading council figures, including the council’s own PR boss, Fran Collingham, who works in Mr Reeves’ department.

One email between Weber Shandwick staff on December 11, 2012, which initially mentions the latest round of Ricoh manoeuvres and negotiations, states: “But upshot of call is that they want to go after Seppala.

.. “They are keen on us building up a new timeline to set out a PR attack on Joy.

“I don’t really want to get into mudslinging from ACL, as I think that starts to eat away at credibility with fans.”

On February 16, 2013, one Weber Shandwick employee emailed another colleague saying: “Can we get an insight into (redacted) state of mind? Is there a chance they will turn on (redacted). On Joy?”

The email goes on to suggest the Press should get down to the part of London where she lives, and that her address could be found on a website.

Another, in April 2014, states: “The job required was done on Seppala in the very early stages of the campaign.”

The Sisu companies in their complaint allege the council and council leaders had no genuine intention of doing a deal to sell the Ricoh to the Sky Blues’ owners, and had a different secret agenda.

Council leader Coun Lucas admitted in an interview with Mr Goacher – as part of the investigation – that she had indeed used the words “hell freezes over” before a deal with Sisu. But she claimed she had been raising it as a question after hearing opinions from some fellow CCFC fans.

Councillors Lucas and Mutton in the interviews, and council officers including Lisa Commane, her then line manager Mr West and Ms Collingham, denied any inappropriate conduct, or media war, although Mr West accepted it was not a good phrase.

Officers claimed the media strategy was simply to respond to Sisu, to media inquiries and properly inform the public.

Ms Collingham claimed the council’s PR strategy was always to be “honest, upfront and transparent” and was usually reacting to stories.

An internet search of Fran Collingham reveals her ’10 things you should know about journalists” – written before she became the council’s PR boss.

In it, she advises fellow PR professionals to go to the “crap” journalists rather than good ones, and to wear newspapers down with complaints in a “war of attrition”.

Mr West also stated in his investigation interview that, although negotiations by late 2012 had broken down over Sisu buying a half stake in the Ricoh Arena company, the Higgs charity had in hindsight tried to set an unreasonably high price.

Investigator Mr Goacher did uphold one complaint. He ruled there was a “technical failure” by Coun Mutton to register his interest as a trustee of the Alan Higgs Centre Trust between July 2012 and June 2015.

The Sisu companies will claim tomorrow that Mr Goacher’s report is riddled with errors following an unsound and incomplete investigation.

They claim it mischaracterises and misunderstands the complaint, and regurgitates council claims while failing to properly question them.

The investigation also appears to have failed to identify precisely who were the council recipients of the Weber Shandwick emails, unredacted versions of which might have been available to the investigator.

Sisu’s lawyers’ response to the investigation report – also available on the council’s website – alleges the findings wholly inappropriately draw on the separate issue of the first judgement by Justice Hickinbottom in June last year of the judicial review into the £14.4million bailout of ACL.

Mr Hickinbottom’s ruling was in July this year questioned and challenged by superior Court of Appeal judges ahead of January’s full appeal hearing.

The Sisu companies want July’s judgement to be referred to in tomorrow’s appeal. But the council has ruled that can only happen if the ethics committee accepts there were failings in Mr Goacher’s investigation.

Sisu companies warn in their response that councillors tomorrow have a responsibility in law to ensure the appeal is conducted fairly and fully, to uphold standards in public life.

The fully investigation report can be found here…

http://democraticservices.coventry.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=161&MId=10965