5th Dec, 2016

More evidence of Coventry council 'media war' with Sky Blues 'owners' despite 'whitewash'

Les Reid 30th Nov, 2015 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

MORE evidence showing how Coventry council figures planned what they termed a ‘media war’ against Sky Blues’ owners amid private Ricoh Arena talks was presented to councillors on its ethics committee today.

But – despite much evidence from private council emails and documents, and emails by hired PR firm Weber Shandwick – the council-hired investigator Simon Goacher claimed it did not present enough “reasonable suspicion” for him to seek further evidence of any links to council leaders and a ‘smear campaign’.

As the Coventry Observer reported yesterday, the Sisu group of companies owning Coventry City Football Club, and Sisu boss Joy Seppala, lodged a complaint in May alleging council leaders John Mutton and his successor Ann Lucas, who took over in May 2013, had breached the councillors’ code of conduct.

It obliges them to act with honesty, respect, openness, transparency and integrity.

The council hired Mr Goacher of law firm Weightmans LLP who cleared both of wrongdoing, triggering the Sky Blues’ companies’ appeal today and complaints of a “whitewash”.

The appeal was adjourned until January after around six hours of deliberation, in which Sisu lawyers and Mr Goacher made their cases to the ethics committee comprising four Labour councillors and one Tory.

We revealed yesterday heavily redacted (censored) emails in 2012 and 2013 between Weber Shandwick staff, copied in to senior council figures, revealed plans for highly personal attacks including Press visits to Ms Seppala’s London address. It was at the height of an acrimonious dispute with then Ricoh Arena company Arena Coventry Limited’s (ACL) two owners – the council and the Alan Edward Higgs Charity.

Committee chair Joe Clifford ruled the Sisu lawyers could present additional evidence.

That additional material included a council briefing document in October 2012 which states: “Council/Higgs/ACL clearly winning the media war.”

It also states: “ACL have appointed Weber Shandwick – a leading PR agency to manage and co-ordinate comms for ACL and shareholders.”

The council and Higgs charity were the two equal shareholders – and ACL directors included council executives Martin Reeves and Chris West.

The council document also notes: “Monitoring and feeding into social media” and “detailed meeting with the leader.”

It then states: “Clear distinction between ACL and Council communication so far protecting Council’s reputation.”

It adds: “Liasing with PR consultants and awaiting detailed CCC (Coventry City Council) strategy.

Our report yesterday highlighted another private email before the ethics committee by then council finance officer Lisa Commane in late 2012, which stated a briefing from the council’s cabinet of Labour leaders had resulted in an “endorsement” for a “media war”.

Sisu’s lawyers questioned why Mr Goacher had not followed up much of the evidence they presented, saying it was his job to investigate further.

This included his failure to interview other people who were present in negotiations to discuss Ricoh Arena rent, revenues and ownership.

Ms Seppala alleges the council leaders’ conduct had been inappropriate in meetings, which minutes stated had been positive in 2012, with a view to Coventry City FC buying in to the Ricoh Arena company and having more crucial revenues to support the team.

Sisu’s lawyers also pointed to media quotes by Coun Mutton in which he stated the council would never sell to Sisu – and that Coun Lucas had made a private proposition that “hell freezes over” before a deal with Sisu – to show they had not acted with integrity, honesty and openness.

Councillor Lucas had publicly claimed the door was always open for the Sky Blues concerning the Ricoh.

Emails from Mr Reeves show how he was pleased with how certain local media got on board with the council’s media strategy at the time the council agreed in private a £14.4million taxpayer bailout of the Ricoh Arena company, after the Sky Blues had withheld what many considered sky high rent payments.

The additional documents considered by the ethics committee also included Court of Appeal judges’ comments in July that cast doubt over a earlier judicial review ruling by Justice Hickinbottom, which had found the council’s £14.4m loan was not unlawful.

Lord Justices Ryder and Briggs raised the prospect in July – ahead of this coming January’s full Court of Appeal hearing – of damages from a resulting chain of events that lead to the loss of ten league points for Coventry City’s team in 2013.

The dispute ended in the highly controversial sale of the Ricoh Arena, on a secret hugely extended 250-year lease, to traditionally London-based and indebted Wasps rugby club, angering many CCFC fans.

Coun Mutton said CCFC boss Tim Fisher had also been making negative comments in the media at the time and the council felt it needed to respond.

Sisu lawyer Fiona Lawrence said he and council figures were not entitled to do so in an inaccurate and defamatory way.

Coun Mutton pointed out a comment he made on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire that Sisu had “greed” in its “DNA” was a response to a question following a comment in Parliament by MP Bob Ainsworth.

But the transcript shows he went on the state he shared that view.

Mr Goacher said it was “difficult to nail down what the complainants were complaining of.. and how it related to the two members” (council leaders).

He add Mr West, Mr Reeves and council PR boss Fran Collingham had all accepted they had dealings with Weber Shandwick, but “on the ACL side”.

Yet Ms Collingham had no responsibility for ACL.

The Weber Shandwick emails also show one to Weber Shandwick staff boasted in 2014 that the “job was done” on Ms Seppala in the earlier stages of the dispute.

  • The full evidence and Goacher report is available by following the link in our report yesterday, which is linked below this story.