Every large project project needs PR handlers. They make sure that correct information is released through the most appropriate media, giving the right message in a way it will best be understood by the public. Often they will give a project some positive spin, you know, talk up the benefits and play down any disadvantages. Up to a point that’s to be expected. But it looks like the Croxley rail Link PR may have been open to a far more sinister form of manipulation.
When dealing with businesses you would expect them to try and use PR to their commercial advantage. But when the message is for public information/consultation and is coming from a public authority like Hertfordshire County Council or publicly-owned concern like London Underground Ltd most of us would expect a higher degree of integrity.
The public inquiry into the Croxley Rail Link was due to publish its findings in the Autumn of 2012. The TWA inspector’s report following the inquiry was actually issued on 30th January (click here to find out why we think it was inadequate and flawed). Presumably the Transport Secretary would have taken a week or two, let’s be generous and say 4 weeks, to consider the findings before publishing the report – isn’t that the point of a public inquiry? Instead the inspector’s report was published together with the Transport Secretary’s approval to the project. So the findings of the inquiry, conducted in public, were not subject to further scrutiny by the public.
What’s more the publication of the report was delayed until 24th July, the day before Hertfordshire schools broke-up for the summer holidays. Significantly, of the 2,000+ people who use Watford Met daily, at least 500 of these will be Watford Boys Grammar School students. The inspector’s report mentioned how (surprisingly) the school had not objected to the proposal but, given the school is run by Hertfordshire County Council which sponsors the CRL project, perhaps some influence was exercised! Conveniently for the Council, the period for judicial review of the inspector’s decision is 6 weeks which ties in beautifully with the end of the school holidays. Case closed?
But there are more dark happenings to report on. Now most people rely on Wikipedia in their internet surfing and, given that it’s open to public contribution and editing, many regard it as neutral and unbiased. It appears the Wikipedia page for Watford Tube station has been heavily doctored with statements like “Watford Met station remains as the terminus of the line, somewhat remote from the town centre” and “On 2010 data it is the 25th most lightly-used station on the London Underground” (no mention is made that the numbers of entry/exits are twice as numerous as Croxley Tube which would remain open under CRL).
On 26th July, two days after the publication of the inspector’s report and Transport Secretary’s decision announcement, the entry was updated to read: “As a result of the Croxley Rail Link project, Watford Met tube station will close to passenger services, but may remain operational as a siding”. I made a fairly innocuous alteration (bold) to read:
As a result of the Croxley Rail Link project, Watford Met tube station would close to passenger services, but may remain operational as a siding. However this is being contested by the Save Watford Met Campaignwhich is lobbying on behalf of local residents for alternative services to be considered to keep the station open.
Within minutes my non-contentious alteration had been undone. I re-made it and within minutes more it had been undone again by a contributor called Gareth Griffith-Jones. Looking at his contributions history he seems to do nothing but alter and modify a wide range of posts using a tool called STiki. It’s an automated programme that monitors whether certain Wikipedia pages are being “vandalised” – whether or not this is in ‘good faith’ is down to trusted users who need to have an account. It is unlikely that the general public has access or know-how to set up and use this technology so it must be deduced that this editing is being done professionally. Now who would commission such editing?