It is with regret that the Save Our Services (SOS) campaign group finds itself in a position whereby it is necessary to defend the actions of one of its members. We believe this necessary not just with regard to the reputation of the member involved, but also in respect of the implications this situation creates regarding public protest and freedom of expression in Newcastle.
Anyone reading this statement will no doubt by now be aware of the encounter between Michael Macdonald and Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes and his companion following the recent Stop The Cuts! Save Our Services march and rally in Newcastle City Centre. Mr. Macdonald’s description of the event is freely available from the same source as this document so I will not repeat his account. However there are some serious points in relation to this incident that we believe do need to be made.
Firstly, we believe Mr. Macdonald’s account to be true. Regardless of any claims that have been made against him, we accept that in no way did he set out to cause any distress and believe it questionable as to whether he genuinely did. Mr. Macdonald was, at first, willing to consider receiving a caution for the accusations against him. However, this was late at night and in a stressful situation, i.e. police interrogation whilst his young son was looked after by a friend, not knowing that his father was not home. Upon calm and rational reflection on his actions, involving advice from a solicitor and various colleagues, Mr. Macdonald firmly rejected any notion of guilt of harassment in what he did and decided that the accusations that were levelled at him needed to be contested, both as a matter of character and along principles regarding the freedom of political expression.
SOS believe that Nick Forbes, as leader of a City Council whose decisions are likely to have dire consequences for many residents, cannot expect political challenge to exclusively take place on his own terms in the arenas most appropriate to him. If he is indeed the ‘man of the people’ he claims to be, he does not stop being ‘of the people’ out of office hours. ‘The people’ are always there, living ‘people’s’ lives, challenging each other’s opinions and actions, constantly affected by Council decisions. One cannot simply be ‘people’ when it is convenient. Or, at least, no one else in Newcastle can. Nor can they call on the police simply because someone has disagreed with their actions.
With regard to the feelings of harassment and distress Mr. Forbes and / or his companion experienced (at this point we still feel unclear as to exactly who is making the complaint), we are left somewhat incredulous. Mr. Forbes and his companion walked through the site of a recent rally attended by approximately 1500 banner waving people protesting at Mr. Forbes’ and Newcastle Labour Council’s policies. If one person confronting them with two banners was likely to be so distressing, why did they walk through an area where there might have been 1500? This beggars belief. We are in no way suggesting that Mr. Forbes and his companion should not walk through the city centre. We are questioning how two men brave enough to walk in the vicinity of 1500 protesters could feel harassed by one individual.
We recognise that Mr. Forbes and his party members have faced a lot of public flack over recent months, some of which has been widely publicised and seen on the internet. However, this raises the question, if it is Mr. Forbes making this complaint, has he accused anyone else of similar behaviour?
If it was Mr Forbes’ companion who felt so harassed as to make the incident a legal matter, he appears to have recovered quickly enough to have promptly headed over to Monument, alone, to take photographs of banners to use, as he stated to another protester present, as ‘evidence’.
We find these accusations unjust and preposterous. Moreover, to an outsider it could well appear that:
1. A legal and peaceful protest has occurred.
2. A politician has been briefly confronted.
3. This politician has immediately used their authority to demand an arrest.
4. The police have removed a protester from his home in the middle of the night when he had sole responsibility for his six year old child, detained him for 4 hours on the basis of a minor charge, during which time he was encouraged to accept a fixed penalty fine.
This is not what we expect of our democratically elected leaders nor the police force, whose actions in arresting an individual in the middle of the night could easily be misinterpreted, particularly by opportunistic journalists or those wishing to cause further aggravation.
We have always been open to communication with Mr. Forbes and would have received his complaint about one of our members graciously if he had chosen to come to us directly, either via email, telephone or face-to-face if that was not too intimidating for him. Failing that, we’re sure that Mr. Macdonald would have been similarly available for an interview with the police at 10 am the following morning.
SOS will continue to support Mr. Macdonald through this trying time and we hope that other organisations involved in the Stop The Cuts! Save Our Services campaign will do the same and in a respectful manner. Although a minor caution, its presence on Mr. Macdonald’s criminal record and within the history of SOS leaves a mark that could potentially blight us both in the future, a situation we would sincerely like to avoid. We hope that Cllr Forbes will withdraw this needless allegation.