Many public bodies receive communications which are either anonymous, vindictive or both. The method of dealing with these methods of communications varies considerably from one body to another.
Local government is no different and probably gets more than its fair share of anonymous mail.
Accusations and allegations can be made against both Members of the Council and its staff.
The communication could be via post, telephone, fax or e-mail.
When such incidents occur they can be both upsetting and disturbing for both the accused and the recipient of the communication whether they are implicated in the accusation or not.
Historically, as far as Aberystwyth Town Council is concerned, anonymous mail has in the past been “thrown in the bin” as the writer does not deserve recognition if they do not have the courage of their convictions to give their names or address, but there is a consensus of opinion that such mail should be recognised and that the simple fact that someone has not put their name to a communication should not automatically disqualify that communication from consideration. It must also be said however, that concerns expressed anonymously are much less powerful.
In deciding on the formulation of a policy in dealing with this issue, many national bodies were contacted and asked how dealt with such issues. (see appendix 1)
The Aims of this policy are to provide Aberystwyth Town Council with a mechanism to deal with an issue which can cause both Councillors and Staff serious harm and have serious consequences unless dealt with in an accepted and professional manner.
Quite often mail that is anonymous is also malicious in its content and the reason that the writer chooses not to put an address on the communication is to protect them from any legal recriminations that may result is spreading rumour, innuendo and lies.
It amounts to bullying and is seen in the eyes of the law as assault.
It also amounts to harassment which is contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
The sending of such mail is illegal.
By sending mail that is anonymous, the author is trying to undermine the confidence that the majority have for a person or a policy that they might not agree with or hold a grudge against. They attempt to demean the subject in the mail by telling lies, which if the mail was not anonymous could be challenged, and more often than not disproved. The author will often hope that the principle of “no smoke without fire” will help them to achieve their aim in destabilise the system or person they are trying to bring down.
What such people forget is if their “complaint” is legitimate then the system will deal with their concern under current legislation and they should not have any concerns regarding their anonymity.
However it is important to understand that this is not the same as WHISTLEBLOWING which is normally seen as an internal safeguard to other staff members. The Council recognises this and has an appropriate policy in place.
Regard must also be given to mail sent and the writer has provided contact details but has asked for anonymity. This should be fully respected at all times. However, these circumstances do not really come under the scope of this policy
Modern methods of communication provide the perfect medium for bullies, individuals whose aim is to gain gratification from the distress caused by provoking and tormenting others.
The anonymity, ease of provocation, limited source of targets means the anonymous letter is the ideal means to target a member of staff or councillor. They often work on the premise that “MUD STICKS”.
Bullies get a perverse sense of satisfaction (called gratification) from sending people flame mail and hate mail. Flame mail is an email whose contents are designed to inflame and enrage. Hate mail is hatred (including prejudice, racism, sexism etc) in any mail.
This may include projection, false criticism and patronising sarcasm whilst contributing nothing of any value. It may also include a common tactic of "a number of people have emailed me backchannel to agree with me". This is standard bully-speak which has been experienced on several forums.
In every case it's a fabrication or a distortion - usually the former. It's also a variant of the serial bully who says "a number of people have complained to me about you...". When challenged, the identity of the alleged complainants can't be disclosed because it's "confidential".
The purpose of this tactic is to wind people up. Don't be fooled into believing it has any validity - it doesn't.
People who bully are adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise pool negative information about them.
Most serial bullies are also serial attention-seekers. More than anything else they want attention. It doesn't matter what type of attention they get, positive or negative, as long as they can provoke someone into paying them attention.
It's like a 2-year-old child throwing a tantrum to get attention from a parent. The best way to treat bullies is to refuse to respond and to refuse to engage them - which they really hate.
It doesn't matter how the victim reacts, the fact they've successfully provoked a reaction is, to the bully, a sign that their attempt at control has been successful.
After that, it's a question of wearing you down. The more your try to explain, negotiate, conciliate, etc the more gratification they obtain from your increasingly desperate attempts to communicate with them.
Bullying is the common denominator of harassment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse, persecution, conflict and violence. When the bullying has a focus (eg race or gender) it is expressed as racial prejudice or harassment, or sexual discrimination and harassment, and so on. Although bullying often lacks a focus, bullies are deeply prejudiced but at the same time sufficiently devious to not reveal their prejudices to the extent that they contravene laws on harassment and discrimination.
Bullying is possibly the single most important social issue of today, for the study of bullying provides an opportunity to understand the behaviours which underlie almost all conflict and violence.
The consequences of not dealing with the problem
8 July 1999: in Noonan v. Liverpool City Council, Cath Noonan accepted an £84,000 out-of-court settlement from her former employers Liverpool City Council. Mrs Noonan was subjected to isolation (being sent to Coventry for 9 months), excessive supervision, being monitored at home whilst on sick leave, and specious criticisms about alleged lack of time-keeping. The former home help supervisor gained the impression that her manager was fuelled by jealousy and envy. In the Daily Mail, 8 July 1999, Mrs Noonan is quoted as saying that "she [the alleged bully] did it in such a way that you couldn't actually put a finger on it. I would say that her barbs hit the target every time but she never left a trace." Mrs Noonan went on sick leave in 1995 and took ill-health retirement in 1997. She was supported by her union Unison.
3 December 2000: former Metropolitan Police Constable Eric Stunt has been awarded £100,000 damages after he was psychologically injured by an investigation of a complaint made against him. In a landmark decision, a High Court judge ruled that PC Stunt was eligible for an injury award as the injury was as a result of performing his duties. The Metropolitan Police have lodged an appeal. Police, ambulance and fire service employees could now sue for millions of pounds in damages as could any public sector employee who is suffering stress due to their job.
- The receipt of anonymous and / or malicious mail should be recorded.
- The records will be subject to review to identify any developing trends.
- Such mail should be disregarded. However, it should be kept for evidence.
- It should be brought to the attention of the Mayor and Chairman of the appropriate committee if it is considered that the accusation is so serious from a legal point of view that to do nothing would be tantamount to negligence. Such matters will be dealt with in the strictest confidence. The panel will then decide on an appropriate method of dealing with that accusation such a referral to the Police or the local Government Ombudsman if the accusation is contrary to the regulatory regime. Caution must be exercised when reacting to anonymous communications which appear to be malicious, potentially libellous or of an extremely personal nature.
- If the mail is malicious in content, it should be referred to the Police in all instances.
- If the contents are malicious and at a later date it is found who sent the mail, the Council will insist that proceedings are instigated against the sender. The Council will give full support to the accused in the communication if the accusations are found to be untrue.
- Such communications will be considered as confidential and will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and will not be subject to public scrutiny without the accused agreeing to such an action in writing.
- Full and complete respect must be given if the writer asks for anonymity but has provided contact details.
- This policy be reviewed periodically to check compliance with legislative changes which may occur in future.
In deciding on the formulation of a policy in dealing with this issue, many national bodies were contacted and asked how they dealt with such issues
Those bodies consulted were:
- Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
- Welsh Development Agency
- Wales Tourist Board
- Ceredigion County Council
- Institute of Welsh Affairs
- The Electoral Commission
- Forestry Commission
- National Library of Wales
- The Sports Council of Wales
- Children’s Commissioner for Wales
- University of Wales
- Welsh Books council
- Care Council for Wales
- Countryside Council for Wales
- Mid and West Wales Fire and rescue Service
- Environment Agency Wales
- Welsh Assembly Government