Cornwall Council accused of 'Twitter spying'


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A council administration has been accused of using public officials to "spy" on what opposition councillors say about its leadership on Twitter.

Cornwall Council has branded "nonsensical" the claim made by Liberal Democrat councillors after they received a letter admitting officials who monitor the social network handed Tory council leader Alec Robertson notes on what was being said online while he presided over a cabinet meeting.

The meeting in January saw Cllr Robertson and other senior Conservatives criticised by opposition councillors using the social network for missing the start because they were meeting "judges from the Local Government Chronicle" who were in Truro because the unitary authority had been shortlisted for its Most Improved Council award.

When he arrived at the meeting he ordered opposition Lib-Dem and independent councillors, attending in a personal capacity, to stop using the social networking site to comment on what was happening, leading to a row over "censorship".

Cllr Alex Folkes, who received the letter after asking how Cllr Robertson had learned of the criticism, said: "I'm astonished, but frankly not surprised, that Alec Robertson should be diverting public money to spy on what opposition councillors are saying about him.

"Everything on Twitter is in the public domain - If Alec wants to know what is being said about him, he just needs to log on and read for himself.

"What he shouldn't be doing is using council staff and seeking to censor what his political opponents are saying."

A letter from Carole Theobald, the council's head of communications and strategy, confirmed a junior council officer was sent into the meeting with a print-out of what was being said online.

"Generally, we monitor Twitter during meetings and on this occasion... provided the information to the Leader.

"A statement was then issued in response to enquiries from the media regarding the council's position on the use of Twitter," the letter said.

A council spokeswoman said today that it regularly monitors a wide range of communications, including newspapers, radio and TV broadcasts, Twitter, blogs and Facebook, which "helps us keep in touch with what people are writing and saying about the council and Cornwall and to address any issues raised".

"As anyone who uses Twitter knows, it is a public forum where the whole idea is to post comments that other users will see. You would not use Twitter to publish anything that you wanted to keep private," she said.

"So it is nonsensical to say that the council is using this social media channel to spy on anyone.

"Neither is the council using its staff or council taxpayers' money to 'censor' councillors' Twitter posts.

"There are no plans to ban the use of social media at these meetings. However, as is well known, concerns have been expressed both within and outside the Council as to the content of some of the posts made on Twitter by councillors during meetings."