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Hackney: A Rose Red-Faced Council

By Sam Urquhart

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by - a group which diligently scrutinizes the preparations for the 2012 Olympics - has unearthed a fascinating tale of official cowardice, quasi-censorship and pandering to corporate, not civic, priorities.

The request concerns a book launch that was scheduled to occur at Stoke Newington library in March 2009. So far, so uncontroversial. Councils across the land have provided support for book launches as long as libraries have had readerships. Where better to host such an event, than a place that links the local community with the book trade and usually has the facilities to hold a good number of people?

Well, according to Hackney Council, anywhere.

The problem is that the book in question is seen by officials at the Council as “controversial.” Being written by one of the greatest living writers about London - Iain Sinclair - it is certain to contain sharp criticisms of the London Olympics and the general drift towards gentrification of historically working class areas. That’s Sinclair’s major theme - the creeping domination of the mysterious, ungoverned, proletarian spaces of London by forces of order and wealth. It’s a theme that he has used to great effect in exploring London’s hinterland, in London Orbital (which circumnavigated the M25) and the essay collection Lights Out for the Territory.

Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair

Generally taking a street level view of the capital - and walking huge distances - Sinclair grounds the fantasies of planners and corporate PR robots, putting them through the mangle of his historical and poetic imagination to create what I find quite opaque, but radical works of art. His take on Hackney, entitled “That Rose-Red Empire” promises to be a fascinating application of his methods to the borough, blitzing the misbegotten 2012 agenda with a vital barrage of criticism.

Which is why Hackney Council came to hate the idea of hosting its launch. But it was a close run thing.

Reading the documents delivered by the FOI request, your heart goes out to members of the Council staff who dealt with the book launch idea. As Ted Rogers of the Libraries Department e-mailed Anna Robinson, the Libraries “reader development manager” in August: “I’m chuffed to bits about this festival. He’s an internationally renowned author and I think it’s a major coup for us to be able to launch one of his books.”

Rogers is right. The launch would have been a fantastic event for the library. Alas for Ted, his problems were beginning. Before the launch could be prepared, it would have to pass through the maw of Hackney’s “communications department.” So Rogers prepared a risk analysis report for Communications to ponder, which went into some detail about how the launch might play in the media.

Rogers, while noting that if Sinclair chose to use the event to criticise the Olympics “legacy” agenda, this could result in the press getting the impression that the Council shares his views (somehow or other), recommended that the event go ahead. As he sensibly noted, “any act that could be viewed as censorship is likely to damage this relationship [between the council and local authors].” Rogers also stressed that Sinclair had supported the Council in the past, while if the Council cancelled, Sinclair would be “ideally placed to portray the council in a bad light..” Sinclair’s access to Radio 4 seemed to be the equivalent of dropping a weapon of mass destruction on Hackney’s gentrification agenda.

Moreover, Rogers made the principled point, to his great credit, that “cancellation of a library event on the grounds of the legal content of a work runs contrary both to the ethics of the profession and to the principle of the stock acquisition policy which states that Hackney will adhere to the CILIP Policy on Intellectual Freedom and Censorship.”

Yet for all of his reasoning, communications took a dim view of trifles like intellectual freedom and censorship.

The next we hear of in the FOI documents is a two way discussion between members of the Communications Department. Polly Rance, the council’s “head of media and external relations” tells James Willsher that the launch cannot go ahead on Council property and that “if pushed for a reason we will say that we do not wish it to appear that Hackney Council condones or endorses the content of the book which is in direct contradiction to our stated aims and policies around the 2012 legacy.”

A fairly long section of the same message is then blacked out, directly after Rance promises to respond to Sinclair in “an appropriately robust fashion” should he query the Politburo’s decision.

We then find a missive from Rance to Nicola Baker, the “Assistant Director: Culture” at the council which states that the mayor had been briefed and was fully on board with this act of intellectual censorship and cowardice. Sinclair, Rance advises Baker, “actively promotes an opinion which contradicts our aims and values as an organisation.” There is no indication of any “value” being applied here other than a purely monetary one.

What comes across vividly is the way that any attempt to provide what council staff think that the public might want to receive, such as internationally renowned authors saying interesting things in their public spaces, is excised. To use a favourite term of Sinclair, the “erasure” of dissidents like Ted Rogers is thoroughly perpetrated at higher levels of the bureaucracy, which has utterly alien goals to those running the lowly libraries.

Another thing that comes across all too clearly is the air of superiority and confidence that the council has towards its wards. As Rance writes, “I am aware that Sinclair is a highly respected writer who has written for many years about Hackney, and there is clearlya certain appeal to his particular brand of urban romanticism, but I just don’t think we can square the circle.”

“Squaring the circle” in this instance means allowing a publicly owned space to host ideas that contradict official policy.

It seems that the official policy is to control the “legacy” of the Olympics to promote gentrification, whereby the poor and unruly are replaced by higher income residents (and reliable rate payers for the council drones). Anyone who questions whether huge amounts of money should be going towards developing sports facilities and housing estates on the Olympic site, rather than investing in already existing and often deprived areas of Hackney, is missing the point. The council doesn’t like those areas. Its vision is for a new Hackney, like the Nigerian elite upping sticks to Abuja, or Turkmenbashi building his Xanadu in Central Asia.

And anyhow, the central government has decided that London will host 2012. The borough council, locked in competition with other bureaucracies across the city, is desperately extending its tongue underneath the sole spigot in town.

It’s all very embarassing for the staff, but you have to sympathise with most of them. The Communications/PR team - residents of Hackney will have less sympathy for, and more resentment. After all, they have to stuff the pointless propaganda sheet that the Comms team has shoved through their letterbox every month straight in the recycling bin.

It looks like Sinclair won’t be grasping around for material for his next London Review of Books article. Judging by the content of these e-mails, that Rose Red Empire is merrily chugging away, loyally clinging to its five-year plans and lauding its Stakhanovites in the PR department while efficiently silencing errant Trotskyites who dare to presume that public spaces should ever, ever, host those who might (but we’re not quite sure) dissent from the Borough’s party line.

A text version of the Hackney Council internal communications obtained by the FOI request can be found here

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