A Bexley blogger has had a harassment charge against him dropped after he posted details of a libel settlement reached by one of the borough’s councillors on his website.
Malcolm Knight, whose Bexley is Bonkers site has built up a loyal following in the borough, had been summoned to appear at Sevenoaks Magistrates Court on Tuesday after covering the case of Conservative Maxine Fothergill, who admitted defaming two business associates in a statement read out in the High Court in November.
Fothergill apologised in court for making the statements, which arose out of a dispute surrounding the management of a housing estate in Erith, close to the Colyers ward she represents on Bexley Council.
But Knight, whose website offers a personal commentary on Bexley Council and is often extremely critical of its leadership, was told on Monday that the charge had been dropped, ending 10 weeks of worry after having first been contacted by Kent Police in December.
All along, the 74-year-old has insisted he merely published factual information.
“I’m still feeling a bit dazed,” he told 853. “I wasn’t feeling at all good about the prospect of going to court, even though I knew there were lots of reasons why the case didn’t stand up. It’ll take me a while to recover from this.”
The retired BT manager, who set up Bexley Is Bonkers in 2009 after a dispute with council officials over a plan to alter a road near his home in Belvedere, is often the only person reporting on Bexley Council meetings.
Cllr Fothergill, who has moved out of the borough of Bexley and is not standing in May’s election, has not responded to several requests for comment from this website.
Knight featured the Fothergill libel case after running a series of stories about an appearance before the council’s standards committee, as well as her being ordered by Sevenoaks District Council to remove a porch at her home in the village of Fawkham, near the Brands Hatch race track.
In December 2015, a standards committee at Bexley ruled she had breached two counts of the councillors’ code of conduct by “which could reasonably be regarded as bringing her office or the London Borough of Bexley into disrepute”. Fothergill would later tell Kent Police she was found “not guilty, other than how this could have been perceived in the public eye”.
Knight covered the standards case on Bexley Is Bonkers, and came to the conclusion that there were flaws in the case against her and “she probably wasn’t as bad as Bexley Council had painted her out to be”.
“An intermediary brought the two of us together, and her husband, in a hotel down Brands Hatch way,” he recalled. At the hotel, Fothergill told him that the case against her may have been much weaker than Knight originally reported.
He agreed to put a heading on the stories indicating his doubts about the case against Fothergill, deleting a handful of them.
While investigating the standards committee story, Knight came into contact with some of Fothergill’s business associates, who had dealt with her Gravesend-based property management company, Amax Estates. It was through these associates that he learned of the libel action against her.
After Knight repeated details of the case when it appeared in the High Court listings on 13 November 2017, he was telephoned by Fothergill.
“She was on the phone within hours, telling me to get it off,” he said.
“She came back to me by email and said that if I met her, she would be able to show me documents that proved she was innocent.”
In the email correspondence, which 853 has seen, Fothergill complained that the libel case was nothing to do with her position as a Bexley councillor. However, Knight responded by saying that many clients of Fothergill’s company lived in the borough.
He declined the offer of a meeting, and published further details about the case later, spreading them out over a few days. Feeling that he had been deceived by Fothergill over the standards committee case, Knight also restored the posts he’d earlier deleted.
But the story had little impact. It wasn’t followed up by the newspapers serving Bexley borough, the Sutton-based News Shopper and the Ashford-based Bexley Times.
“I emailed her to say the story wasn’t creating much of a stir, it wasn’t worth pursuing and to be honest, having met her a few times, I felt a bit sorry for her, so I said I wouldn’t do any more,” he told 853.
“She said it wasn’t good enough, the whole world could see it and I should take it down. You can’t do that – news is news.”
Contacted by solicitors, then police
Nearly three weeks later, Knight was contacted by her solicitors, asking him to remove a link to the website of the Ukip branch in Bexley. Fothergill’s ward is split between Ukip and the Conservatives, and the Ukip website had also highlighted the libel settlement. Knight did as they asked.
“Ukip had gone rather further in the way of derogatory remarks… but all he wanted to me to do was remove the link, so within seconds I said it was done, it meant nothing to me,” Knight recalled.
“You’d think that was it, but she wanted the stuff taken off the web. So the police were the last resort.”
On 18 December, Knight says he was told to attend Swanley police station or face arrest. He went to Swanley, and was interviewed under caution.
Kent officers visited him at his home on 5 January and told him “their sergeant had decided because of the amount of stuff [published] that it was harassment, and I should expect a letter inviting me to go to Sevenoaks Magistrates Court shortly”.
Some weeks later, he was summoned to appear before Sevenoaks Magistrates on 27 February, but the hearing was postponed by a week the day before it was due to be heard. The charge was finally dropped on Monday.
‘Not a realistic chance of conviction’
853 has made four attempts to contact Maxine Fothergill, via both her business and Bexley Council.
This included calling in at Amax Estates, where Fothergill’s personal assistant, who did not want her name published, said her boss did not wish to talk about the case.
A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service told 853: “We keep cases under continual review. Following a review of the evidence in this case we decided there was not a realistic prospect of conviction and therefore the case was discontinued.”
Bexley Council said it could not comment because it was not council business, adding Fothergill did not receive any legal advice from its officers.
Kent Police has not responded to a request for comment.
Thanks to David Banks and the Independent Community News Network for assistance with this story. 853 produces public interest journalism for Greenwich and SE London and is part-funded by its readers. If you would like to contribute to keeping the site running, please visit www.patreon.com/853.