Saturday 19 August 2017

My Response To Barney Ronay's Latest Millwall CPO Article In The Guardian.

Barney Ronay is a sports journalist at the Guardian who writes very good columns on football games. His most recent article on the role of nostalgia in the media in his commentary about Manchester United's game against West Ham is worth a read.

But he is not the Guardian's development journalist. Would the Guardian get their leading music journalist to write about the financial and technical viability of the proposed new concert hall in the City of London? No, of course not. Read instead articles in the Guardian by their arts journalists about new developments. They contain none of the rambling innuendo that characterises Ronay's foray into this area. 

His 30 odd articles on the technical feasibility, financing, commercial viability and development of the land around Millwall contain fewer facts than prior suspicions. A pity. For there's a good story there about how a local club has been piled in debt by its owner and, like most Championship and League One clubs, is utterly reliant on the ambitions of one man. 

In his most recent article, (see hereRonay spends some time talking about the positions of the various candidates seeking selection to become the Labour candidate in next year's Mayoral election in Lewisham, with regard to the proposed CPO of land owned by the Council but leased to the club.  While he mentions Damien Egan's change of mind over the issue, he doesn't point out that Alan Hall, Damien and I all voted to approve the New Bermondsey development not once but twice when it came before the Council's Strategic Planning Committee.  Only Paul Bell voted against. (Brenda Dacres was not on the Council at this time)

A lot of Ronay’s recent article is given over to a blatant attempt to rubbish the Dyson inquiry. This is the investigation set up by the Council to examine whether or not there is any wrong at the heart of New Bermondsey development following various claims made by the Guardian. You would think that Ronay and the Guardian, having spent months raising questions about the probity of the process and individuals involved and frankly, feeding the rumour mill with nods, winks and innuendo, would relish the opportunity to put their evidence before a judge. Judges are, after all, not guns for hire where the job is to shoot your enemies, whoever they may be. Nor is a judge a lawyer paid to plead a case. They are professionals whose job it is to make judgements on the basis of an open-minded analysis of the evidence. Their reputations depend on them doing this. Nor is Lord Dyson any old judge. He is the most recently retired Former Master of the Rolls and until last year was the second highest lawyer in the land. 

When I asked if the Guardian had co-operated fully with Dyson, Ronay was evasive. I suspect that he has, in fact, under legal advice, kept his co-operation to a minimum. I further suspect that on legal advice, he has not appeared before Dyson. I think that if the Mayor, Steve Bullock, had refused to appear before the judge citing legal advice that he had received, Ronay would have held him up to public ridicule and opprobrium in the pages of the Guardian.

Ronay goes out of his way to say that there is no corruption involved here, presumably by Renewal and the Council.
These are not issues of criminality or corruption.
And again
This is not an issue of illegality or corruption.
This is striking because he has spent many months and column yards insinuating the exact opposite. I and my colleagues, officers and members, can attest to the fact that many people believe that we are involved in something corrupt at best and are in fact personally corrupt ourselves at worse.  Much of this impression has been created by Barney Ronay’s articles. 

So why this change of tone? I sense the hand of the Guardian’s lawyers.

Ronay writes:
As previously detailed in these pages it is, for example, clear that Sport England has not “pledged” £2m in funding for Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, the charitable company at the heart of the developer-led scheme. As of 2014, there is not even a current application in train. And yet the link with Sport England has been trumpeted in a PR-ish fashion in various public documents.
What he omits to say, is that this matter formed the basis of a formal complaint that was fully investigated by the Charity Commission and dismissed:
The commission received differing accounts as to the nature of the financial support from Sport England and the charity (SCSF), 
then it adds:
However, it accepts that the charity’s (SCSF’S) statements about Sport England’s support were made in good faith and did not have the intention to mislead.
Following its not guilty verdict, the Commission makes clear that the SCSF cooperated fully with their investigation and implies that, in this respect, they are an example to other charities. No doubt some people will not be satisfied with this result but I defy any open-minded unbiased person to read the report and not to see it as an exoneration of the Foundation. (The full report can be found here.  Its only short, 3 pages and also well worth a read)

I think that the Charity Commission’s report is a gamechanger. It should be remembered that it was reports in the Guardian that SCSF had made false claims about funding from Sport England that led to a media feeding frenzy and local outcry, culminating in the resignation from the charity’s board of trustees of both Steve Bullock and Peter John, the leader of Southwark Council. The pressure for these matters to be properly investigated and the mounting pressure on Bullock personally was what led to the establishment of the Dyson inquiry. 

So having had their big reveal and won the sport-loving public’s prize for investigative journalism, the Guardian has had to watch while the Charity Commission, having conducted a real investigation into their claims, has produced a report that makes clear that it was all a fuss about nothing. Therefore, if anyone is to blame for the £500,000 of scarce taxpayers money that is being spent of on this investigation, it is the Guardian 

I can’t say that I am surprised. It is worth remembering that the origin of this story in the Guardian was an unnamed, unverifiable source at Sport England. This puzzled me from the start. Following the publication of Ronay’s allegation in the Guardian, Lewisham Council’s Chief Executive, Barry Quirk, contacted Sport England to find out more. His calls were not returned. As far as I am aware no named person from Sport England has ever gone on the record in public to substantiate Ronay’s claims. I think that the refusal to make any official comment on this is extraordinary behaviour for a public body funded by public money whose purpose is to act in the public interest. For all we know this unknown insider was merely someone with a grudge.

On top of this, it would not have escaped the Guardian’s attention that a Tribunal has been sitting to investigate what is essentially Millwall’s complaint to the Freedom of Information Commissioner over Lewisham Council’s refusal to release certain documents to them. This has been held in public. I believe that former Guardian journalist Dave Hill has been in attendance. He has written a couple of articles about it (see here and here)  I understand that the fact that the Club sought to pursue its case via a proxy, the journalist Katherine Bergen and were unwilling to be called as a witness failed to impress.

Now Dyson appears to be coming to the end of his evidence gathering. Wiser and more balanced heads at the Guardian than Barney Ronay now seem to have seen the writing on the wall.

So it is no wonder Ronay has embarked on a damage limitation exercise. The strategy appears to be, say there’s no corruption involved and try to give the impression that you never suggested otherwise. Nonetheless proceed to rubbish Dyson by saying it is not going far and wide enough, lacks teeth and anyway it is paid for by the Council, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more. Then go on to say that their concern really is all about transparency, ethics and the poor people at the bottom. The implication seems to be that it is the foreign owner of a football club, its fans who, in the main, live everywhere but in Lewisham and the Guardian who are the legitimate voices of the local community, not a democratically elected local Council.

Ronay is right about one thing. The development has come to a standstill, what he calls a ceasefire. I can only hope that, at some point, someone in senior management at the Guardian will feel that they have a moral duty to examine why so much time has been spent seeking to derail such a large redevelopment project that is so clearly in the public interest.

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