When Tim Martin, the stridently anti-EU head of Wetherspoons, declared that his company was abandoning social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, it took some observers by surprise. But then, the excuses, such as “trolling”, began to unravel: many business people, party leaders and media folk receive adverse comment, but they don’t shut down their Facebook and Twitter accounts as a result.
Tim Martin - now facing questions
From the doubts came the questions: what Facebook data did Wetherspoon hold? How did they gather it? What did they do with it? Was some kind of commercial transaction involved? What are the data protection implications? Has the Information Commissioner been kept informed? Was there a DPA registration of any kind made? Thus far, answers there have been none. But this matters - because of the referendum campaign.
Did Wetherspoons use that social media information to aid the Leave campaign? As ever, the Observers’s Carole Cadwalladr was on the case: “Wetherspoons was a registered referendum participant. Printed thousands of pro-Brexit beermats. At this stage, I discount nothing”. Make that hundreds of thousands of beermats. In addition, Martin donated more than £365,000 to Vote Leave, the designated Leave campaign.
And Vote Leave could be in trouble, including criminal charges against some of its key players, including Stephen Parkinson, now at 10 Downing Street, and Dominic Cummings. Ms Cadwalladr was on that case, too: “Tim Martin, Wetherspoon's chairman, also a significant donor to Vote Leave....currently under investigation for possible overspending and data sharing. Via Facebook”. And there was more.
Wetherspoons deleted its entire customer email database last year - on June 23, or exactly one year after the referendum. The excuse given to punters, “Many companies use email to promote themselves, but we don't want to take this approach - which many consider intrusive … Our database of customers’ email addresses, including yours, will be deleted”, was not connected to the referendum campaign at the time.
Well, it is now, as Ms Cadwalladr noted: “In Vote Leave's official registration documents with Electoral Commission, it committed to deleting data within one year of referendum”. That is effectively an admission by Wetherspoon that its customer email database formed part of the data Vote Leave used in its campaign.
Ms Cadwalladr summed up: “Wetherspoons = official referendum participant @vote_leave, AIQ & Facebook data all under investigation … Today Wetherspoons deletes all social media accounts, including Facebook”. And one MEP is already on the case: Molly Scott Cato, representing South West England for the Green Party, is that person.
She announced yesterday “Molly has today challenged Wetherspoons chairman and major donor to the Leave campaign, Tim Martin, to reassure customers that their data was not ‘harvested’ to support the Brexit campaign”. Given that customer email database was deleted in the exact same timeframe as Vote Leave’s deletion commitment, and Martin had previously hitched his wagon to the Vote Leave train, it looks like it was.
Tim Martin is now well and truly in the mire. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving chap.