EX-Labour Cllr Paul Bretherton appeared in court today (Thursday) accused of harassing former Warrington North Labour MP Helen Jones by posting offensive and derogatory comments on local news websites.
Bretherton who represented the Rixton and Woolston Ward on Warrington Borough Council until he was de-selected in 2016 appeared at Liverpool Magistrates Court.
He was charged that between 24/10/2016 – 18/12/2018 at Warrington pursued a course of conduct which amounted to the harassment of Helen Jones and which you knew or ought to have known amounted to the harassment of her in that you made a number of public posts about her and her family on the Warrington Guardian and Warrington Worldwide websites, which were offensive, derogatory or untrue. Contrary to section 2(1) and (2) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
He has denied the offence.
The MP’s husband Mike Vobe told the court he had instigated proceedings due to the “trolling” of his wife due to an increasing number of posts on two media outlets by someone using the alias “Billywires” which became increasingly “obsessive.”
Following the murder of MP Jo Cox, assaults on other MPs and an incident when a white powdered substance had been sent to the MP’s office Mr Vobe said both he and his wife were worried that the obsessive postings could turn into something else.
The media were contacted and asked to remove some of the postings but in the end he decided the only way to tackle the situation was to contact the police.
“Helen was becoming worried and anxious. The amount of untruths being posted was having an unhealthy affect on Helen who changed her working methods when attending public events and always felt the need to have someone with her like a bodyguard,” he said.
Ms Jones told the court she had known the defendant since 2006 and helped him in his campaign to get elected to the borough council. Contact became less over the following years and ended when he was deselected in 2016.
She had no idea who was behind the derogatory posts under the name of “Billywires.”
” I felt someone was deliberately out to trash my reputation,” she said.
She told the court how she became increasingly anxious as the postings became more and more obsessive. It was as if someone had alert notifications every time she was quoted in the press. She was even mentioned under articles which had no reference to her. She felt like someone had a vendetta against her and feared where it could lead. There were also constant attacks on her family and office staff which included references to them being “5th columnist rats.”
Ms Jones said: “People have a right to disagree but no right to make things up and be abusive with attacks on me and my family and people who work for me.
“This kind of behaviour degrades politics and puts people off entering politics.
“It felt like I was being stalked online instead of in person.
“I was worried that this obsessive behaviour would tip over into something else so it made me very insecure. It was very wounding and offensive and I felt constantly under attack whatever I did. It was shocking that someone would go to so much trouble to post so many things which were untrue. It was twisting reality. At times I felt under siege.”
Ms Jones said that during her career she had never felt unsafe when attending events until the online abuse started.
Because one post had mentioned that she had been seen shopping in a local supermarket she started shopping outside the borough. She was so concerned she had to change her working practice and needed someone with her when attending public events.
Prosecutor Sarah Eagan told the court that police eventually traced the postings to the home of Bretherton who admitted posting as Billywires but said he was scrutinizing the MP’s performance and never intended to cause any harassment or put the MP or her family or staff in fear of their safety.
As a Labour councillor he had worked alongside Ms Jones for almost 10 years but was de-selected in 2016 due to the Labour party’s decision to select more women. He told police he “felt shafted” at the time.
He told officers he had not intended to make Ms Jones feel threatened and felt that with “freedom of speech” he had the right to criticise his local MP.
“I had no intention to make Helen Jones or her family feel threatened and if I did I would wish to make an unreserved apology.”
He also reassured police he would make no more posts about her.
The trial continues tomorrow (Friday).
Below is a sample of one of the posts made under an article on the warrington-worldwide website.