Why the News Shopper’s Woolwich witch-hunt is all wrong

The News Shopper’s got its knickers in a twist…

SHOULD the man in charge of tourism in Greenwich be telling the world he has to hide his wallet before visiting Woolwich?

News Shopper is calling for the resignation of Neil McCollum after he posted the following message on social media website Twitter: “Guest Appearance in Woolwich today. Wonder if it has changed. Mental note, make sure wallet is not visible.”

The Petts Wood-based newspaper has discovered an old and unflattering tweet by Greenwich Council’s tourism boss. Fair enough, it was a bloody stupid thing to type. But something to resign over? Really? Who in this area hasn’t cracked a joke about Woolwich being a bit of a tip over the past few years?

I’ve seen Neil’s account a few times, and nowhere has he mentioned his employers – there’s been a couple of tongue-in-cheek references to being a tourism supremo or something like that. The first time I saw his account, I didn’t know he was a council employee although I thought the name was familiar. I scoured for proof, couldn’t find it, and left none the wiser.

So while he was stupid to have tweeted this, and it’s a clear case of how not to use social media, all this surely deserves is a firm-telling off. Not a call for resignation from a newspaper which isn’t even based locally.

There’s a reason why the Shopper smells blood – earlier this year, a Labour council candidate in Gravesend, which is even further away from Petts Wood than Woolwich is, resigned after the paper revealed even older tweets containing bad jokes and a thirst for red wine.

But Shopper reporter Nina Massey, who wrote the story, doesn’t seem so keen on SE London either….

There’s serious problems with the way Greenwich Council conducts itself, and its reaction to the riot in Woolwich neatly demonstrates many of them. But someone who works for the council saying something stupid on the internet isn’t one of them.

What really worries me about all this is that an already-secretive council will close ranks even further as a result of this. Communication with the public is already funnelled through a weekly propaganda paper, Labour councillors are discouraged from speaking independently on even the most trivial of matters, although thankfully some disregard this.

But councillors and their staff should be free to speak in public, and talk to the people who pay their allowances and wages. If they use social media to do this, then that’s good. The odd furore over a stupid comment is a small price to pay for greater openness. If anything, it shows the need for some kind of code of social media conduct in people’s contracts. After all, leading councillors can already say stupid things without having to take to Twitter or Facebook.

It would be a tragedy if the Greenwich Council went even further into its shell, just because a newspaper based outside its borders hung, drew and quartered someone for a moment of stupidity. For if that happened, we’d all lose out. Woolwich is still recovering after the worst civil disorder for decades. It’d be far better if the News Shopper called for pride in the place, rather than someone’s head.

1.30pm update: Just spotted something which shows the News Shopper’s knowledge of Woolwich’s tourist hotspots possibly isn’t what it thinks it is.

The story contains a list of “things to see in Woolwich” which neglects its two fine old military academy buildings, but includes the “big screen in Beresford Square”.

That’s only been there since the weekend, and is there to show images of alleged looters. Bleak humour about Woolwich? Never!


  1. Agreed: it was a fatuous remark but that’s all: it’s not a resignation matter. God help us – the way this kind of thing makes for a cheap headline means that a truly news-worthy story is bound to be missed.

  2. it was a stupid remark and he should apologise at the very least. I don’t think that calls for resignation are so far over the top though. A Gerald Ratner moment that is not just damaging but also offensive. There are plenty of private sector employees who would lose their job for slagging off their own company on Twitter.

    On balance though, if he’s good at his job, let him off, but maybe get him to do some weekend community work in Woolwich, repairing some of the damage that’s been inflicted on the area recently.

  3. But nowhere on his Twitter feed does he mention his employer – if he did, I’d think differently, but I’m prepared to cut him some slack here.

    I like the idea of some community work, though. Maybe he could lead some tours around Woolwich’s interesting sites – of which there’s quite a few….

  4. It’s a dumb arse remark for a person with his job to make. I’m annoyed that they’ve published it now and made me think the guy was insensitive as well as a dumb arse when it was a pre-Riot remark. I agree that people should be able to voice their own opinions on their own social networking profiles, and I know that many of us have expressed an opinion about Woolwich being a bit of a craphole, but I don’t think someone who thinks Woolwich is a craphole should be responsible for promoting it!

  5. Don’t think there’s a need for a specific code of conduct re social media – all councillors are already bound by a code of conduct* which will, at least implicitly, include social media, so maybe just a quick reminder from council officers that they shouldn’t say daft things is enough. In fact, even the NS coverage may be enough of a reminder …

    As for employees, there will be a clause about bringing your employer into disrepute, and there’s almost certainly also something about not speaking to the media. But it’s for the employer to push this point if it wants to, as a disciplinary matter: I’d say there’s probably enough in the NS coverage for the council to take action if it wanted to, though it risks being seen as petty and vindictive …

    *It’s been a long time since I knew about this stuff, but I think that either the council has to produce a code of conduct which is agreed by the Standards Board for England, or (if it doesn’t) then the councillors must comply with an overarching code from the Standards Board. Almost all councils produce their own.

  6. To be honest I don’t think it was a stupid remark.

    It was a light hearted aside (which should not be judged on whether it would fare well in a stand up comedy routine) made by a private citizen in their private capacity. You may or not appeciate the humour – such is the nature of these passing comments – but that doesn’t make them wrong.

    There is a disturbing trend towards sanitising public life to such an extent that anyone *with a job* is expected to abide by an unwritten standard so that only the most tedious uber-middle class types can hold any position – and then we wonder why so many of them are out of touch and unimaginative.

    Let’s not create a society where people are afraid to be normal people with all the fun and faults that that implies. Let’s not create a society where hounding people out of their job is the casual first response to any infraction, no matter how unrelated to their work. Losing your job is devastating and the New Shopper appears to want to destroy this man’s life for saying something that literally effects or offends no one.

    It comes to something when a news organisation can tweet fake riot reports and think that’s fine but then attempt to crucify someone for an entirely innocuoous remark made outside of work.

  7. Who hasn’t made jokes at poor Woolwich’s expense? Not a resignation worthy/sacking offence.

    I have grown to be very fond of the place over the last 4 years but I still acknowledge that it has a long way to go. I am sure its glory days will come again.

    Agreed re. Greenwich Council’s reluctance to speak to its residents. I believe the council does quite a few things to a good standard but communication isn’t one of them.

  8. Does he have any responsibility for Woolwich? I wouldn’t want to have to rely on someone who thinks the area is a dump and the people have a propensity to mug. He’s unlikely to do the best for the area.
    If he has no responsibility for Woolwich then the remark should be noted but is otherwise of no consequence.

  9. When Gerald Ratner said his jewellery was crap, people stopped buying it. When the head of Greenwich tourism says Woolwich is a place where you will get robbed, what are we supposed to do to express our disgust? Stop visiting Woolwich?

  10. JIm, it wasn’t a private remark, he made it on Twitter. And he can express any personal views he likes, so long as they don’t directly contradict the job tax payers pay him to do. Even worse, it was specifically in relation to an official appearance he was making, so it wasn’t a personal capacity.

    Social media means we are all media companies now, which is great, but with that comes some responsibilities, one of which is you don’t publish comments that slag off the place and the people you are paid to promote.

    Like I say, I don’t think it was a sackable offense, but it was certainly the wrong thing to do.

    I suspect if David Cameron had Tweeted the same thing, you would agree with me.

  11. I wonder how people would feel if a social worker started tweeting about how ghastly their clients were? I think we’d all find that a bit suspect. There’s a difference between “Ghastly day at work, people being difficult” and “My clients are scumbags” and McCollum’s remark seems to be in the latter category.

  12. “Private citizen” and “Private capacity”, not “in private”.

    I think you’ve mistaken me for somone else if you think I’ll jump on someone just because they’re a Tory. eg I defended Ken Clarke over his rape remarks earlier in the year (well, I said he should not be sacked although what he said was clumsy, unlike this). I doubt I’d attack Cameron for this – I don’t go in for that sort of thing, particularly when there are real issues to critique.

    Where there may be a difference though is between elected representatives and employees of the couuncil. I’m actually concerned that we’re creating a generation of robo-politicians and discouraging those with imagination and flair by expecting some kind of puritan moral standard – but I do recognise that that the standard should be higher for elected politicians than for council employees who should only be held to account for actions that effect the quality of their work (which I don’t think this does).

  13. I dunno but I don’t think that it’s a puritan moral standard to expect people not to tweet stuff that shows they don’t actually care about their remit?

  14. Jim, I don’t want him sacked because that is an overreaction. But it is also an under reaction to say he did nothing wrong. The whole “private capacity” thing is a complete red herring – he did it on a public medium, on his way to an event where he was making a public appearance as a public official and it was directly relevant to his remit to promote Greenwich! I don’t want people to be robots, but I DO want them to show some bloody professionalism.

    It’s not a special standard applied to the public sector either, it’s true whoever you work for. I work with a lot of companies that would (rightly) take a very dim view if their employees used twitter to slag off their customers / investors.

  15. Where to start here? “Caterbury”? Oh dear, those NCTJ standards are slipping a little on the local papers these days (see, they were right about Newsquest.)

    Who the hell walks around with their “bank card hanging out of [their] pocket” and why is this person in any way credible for a local rag to quote?

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