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A dispute between The Argus and Brighton and Hove City Council has taken a farcical turn with editor Michael Beard threatening legal action after the council’s communications chief John Shewell described the paper as a ‘local rag’.
It follows Monday’s publication of a story discussing the creation of a tourist tax in Brighton and Hove, which the council rejected through a press release and various tweets, while Councillor Geoffrey Bowden described it as ‘nonsense’. The Argus has stressed their article was merely raising the subject for debate and was not suggesting the idea was being considered by the council.
One of the tweets from John Shewell said yesterday: “Local rag runs ridiculous line that @brightonhovecc thinking of introducing “tourist tax” er…no we’re not!”
A ‘local rag’ is usually considered a colloquial term for a local newspaper rather than its official derogatory definition. However, in response Mr Beard has emailed Mr Shewell and said: “As to your comment describing the Argus as a “local rag”, the advice from our company lawyer is that the tweet as a whole is defamatory in that it characterises The Argus (and therefore the Editor and individual members of staff) as a “rag” that carelessly or incompetently publishes false or misleading information and is not to be relied on.”
The letter has been repeated in full by Michael Taggart, who is a local marketing and social media expert, on his blog.
Mr Shewell has also written on Twitter about the email from the Argus’ editor, which he has described as ‘bullying tactics’.
Green Party cabinet member Ben Duncan has also used Twitter to voice his disappointed at The Argus’ actions.
Clearly unafraid of being sued for repeating the description of the local paper, he tweeted: “Local rag in #Brighton rejects notion of free speech on Twitter by consulting lawyers over council ‘tweet’” and later added: “Local rag says UK’s first Green council love travellers, protests and drug-users but hates residents, parks and tourists. Must be true then!”
The topic has already been commented on by Guardian writer Roy Greenslade, who occasionally writes for The Argus, who suggests he agrees with the paper’s original dispute, but is not in favour of using libel as a threat and nor does he think ‘local rag’ can be taken as an insult.