Why is Warwickshire council's deputy leader not answering questions about his controversial views on masks?

We tried to ask a man who holds a fair amount of power over all of us to clarify his views on a serious public health issue. Not for the first time, he has refused to talk
Masks, lots of masks.Masks, lots of masks.
Masks, lots of masks.

At some point in our lives, we've all been stood up - but the Advertiser must confess to being left broken-hearted (and a little bit concerned about the state of local democracy) after the deputy leader of our county council refused to take part in an interview that (we thought) was quite important.

Cllr Peter Butlin is somewhat of a big shot at Warwickshire County Council. As well as representing the Admirals and Cawston ward, he is the portfolio holder for Finance and Property and he serves as the council's deputy leader.

Safe to say, he's quite an important chap and what he says matters because through his various roles at the council he represents hundreds of thousands of people.

But this is not all. Cllr Butlin also stepped down from his role at Rugby Borough Council not all that long ago and there is growing talk of the prospect of Rugby Borough Council being axed and replaced with one council to rule the entire county - a unitary authority.

Among the chattering circles of Rugby, it is considered a reasonable bet that our Cllr Butlin might be hoping for a very good spot in any possible new authority.

So take heed of his actions - because he might just end up having very serious power over decisions that will affect many aspects of your lives.

That is why we were intrigued when Cllr Butlin bashed out a Tweet in which he branded masks 'nothing more than symbols of compliance, fear and acquiescence'. At the same time, the county council is pushing out the message for people to wear masks.

Our good councillor is no stranger to controversy on Twitter. He has previously done a fairly good job of winding up environmental activists over an array of tweets in which he shares his insights into climate change. You can view many of these by visiting his account. To put it mildly, they are not quite in harmony with his council's 2019 decision to declare a 'climate emergency'.

But, back to this mask issue - Cllr Butlin's words were seen as quite inappropriate by some. Matt Western, MP for Leamington and Warwick, branded Cllr Butlin's comment 'dangerous' and said he thought it read as an incitement to break the law.

But, offensive to some as Cllr Butlin's many insights are, such views are held by a sizeable minority of people across the country. And they are part of an ongoing debate. A look through the pages of mainstream, centre-right publications like the Telegraph and the Spectator uncover comment pieces which appear to echo Cllr Butlin's sentiments.

In fact, in recent days Rugby MP Mark Pawsey, while urging residents to take all precautions including getting their boosters and wearing masks, has expressed his own opposition to aspects of the Government's most recent handling of the pandemic.

In a statement released last week, he explains that he today (December 14) will oppose the latest measures in Parliament and, agree with him or not, as a responsible elected representative he had the good sense to explain his decision and make his case to the public. It is worth reading this statement (see bit.ly/3s6V3Ku) and, for clarity, Mr Pawsey's views are very different from Cllr Butlin's.

Elsewhere, we spoke with the Cllr Seb Lowe, the leader of Rugby Borough Council just moments ago and he made it clear he views the latest measures as sensible, moderate and proportional. He provided clear and well-thought out reasoning for this. He praised the record of both the borough and county council in delivering a clear, proportional response to the dangers. We will likely put together a separate report on this in the near future.

Here we have it, two examples of public representatives making absolutely clear what their views are and explaining their reasoning. That's how it's done.

So what are we to do when we see a senior political figure like Cllr Butlin who presents views that, although controversial, are clearly part of a public debate that has far-reaching consequences?

It should be self-evident that a senior council figure's views on a vital public health issue need to be discussed. Ultimately, councillors work for us, the public, and we have a right to know what their views on the big public issues are. We don't care in the slightest what his personal life is like, what he had for breakfast or what his favourite film is. We simply care about what his views on major public issues are - especially when they are of relevance to his own council's functioning.

Clearly then, this warrants coverage. But how do we do that responsibly and fairly? Rather than falling into the 'so what you're saying is' trap of presupposing what someone thinks and why they think it, we wanted to give Cllr Butlin a chance to explain his views in full so thousands of his constituents could make an informed decision.

On Twitter Cllr Butlin professes himself 'A lover of free speech and liberty' - great, we thought, here's someone who will recognise the value of getting ideas out into the public forum where they can be discussed and scrutinised.

But here's where we ran into problems. We sent two emails to Cllr Butlin, stating we would like to publish a story which would see his views fairly represented so his constituents could examine his position and decide whether they agree. But he played it coy, and didn't even acknowledge receipt of the emails.

We did also attempt to call his office number - to no avail. And it is not just us. He also refused to speak to the BBC about this issue.

The usual practise with councillors is for them to also provide a mobile number so they are easily contacted - especially important seeing as we're supposed to be working from home where possible - but Cllr Butlin appears to have not provided such a number.

To put this in context - in years of doing this - this is the first time I have known a councillor to completely ignore the press. This is not normal behaviour and, I'm afraid, this is not the first time our good councillor has done this. Although previously it was over an issue that was far less controversial.

Say what you want about Rugby Borough Council, but every single councillor from every political group is easily approached. Their press team too will respond quickly to enquiries. Our borough councillors - and actually any other county councillor I have dealt with - will engage with us, no matter how controversial the issue.

Why do they do this? Is it because the Advertiser is special and terribly important? Absolutely not. We're just paid scribblers. You are important, and you have a right to know what your elected representatives are up to. Councillors know this. They know that when they speak to us they are speaking to you, and they trust us as a publication to do our job properly and fairly represent their views. But don't take our word for it - if you know a councillor in the area - ask them about this.

So here we are, we hoped this story was going to be an interview with Cllr Butlin, in which he was given an opportunity to explain to us, and you, why he thinks dimly of masks.

Of course we'd have added balance - including the fact that some very clever people believe masks are saving lives. But we're not going to insult your intelligence - Cllr Butlin's arguments, whatever they may be, would have been presented so that you could make your own mind up.

But alas, our attempts at contact have been dismissed (again) and here we're left, not quite knowing what on earth one of our most senior councillors thinks should be done about probably the greatest challenge to this country since the Second World War.

At the time of writing this, it was discovered that Cllr Butlin quietly deleted that tweet, and he did later post a selfie showing him wearing a mask on public transport.

Does this mean he has changed his mind? Or does it mean he:

1) Holds the view that it is possible to oppose a law in principle but still abide by it? In fairness, this is a perfectly reasonable position unless the law is particularly dangerous or wicked.

2) He's had a telling off from his colleagues and been pressured into deleting the tweet?

Who knows. We certainly don't, because he won't talk to us.

And that's the crux of the issue, here. Frankly, Cllr Butlin is within his rights to assert that the moon is made of cheese if he wants to. But as an elected representative he ought to understand that he is answerable to the public - especially if he is espousing views which are contrary to medical advice being issued with the intention of preventing deaths.

We do not want to incite a witch-hunt against Cllr Butlin, and this is not a personal attack. Anyone who feels emboldened to be horrible to him after reading this has completely misunderstood what is being said here.

Elements of the media have become very good at hunting out public figures with the 'wrong' opinions and attempting to shame them into silence. This is stupid and dangerous. When reporters behave like this they undermine the same freedoms that allow them to do their job.

We don't want Cllr Butlin to be shamed into silence. We want him to be open about his beliefs and to do us, the public, the courtesy of explaining them.

If you have so far missed the point of this, here it is: Asserting a view in the way Cllr Butlin has done and then refusing to engage with the press when they rightfully ask questions on behalf of the public is not very impressive.