Cardinal O’Brien and the Saturday phone call


By Kenneth Roy

A few Saturdays ago, on what was effectively the last day of his public life, Keith O’Brien received a telephone call or calls from the Observer. When a Sunday newspaper phones you on a Saturday, you know you have been sussed. The indictment has been prepared, the incriminating adjectives are in place. All that remains is to ask the guilty party what he has to say for himself.

Cardinal O’Brien sensibly decided, or was advised, not to answer these calls. The newspaper then pursued its inquiries through the Catholic Media Office and spoke to a man named Peter Kearney. According to the Observer’s Catherine Deveney – whose account of what happened is not in dispute so far as I know – Mr Kearney advised the newspaper not to publish the story and said that the cardinal not only contested the allegations but was consulting his lawyers.

What was the Observer to do? It had pages of credible testimony from the three un-named priests and the un-named former priest. It knew of the Vatican’s involvement. It felt it had the cardinal banged to rights. So, despite having the usual frighteners put on it, the newspaper took a calculated risk and published.

Within a few days the allegations were no longer being contested, Keith O’Brien was no longer consulting his lawyers and the church’s PR operation was looking more than a little foolish. Some mysteries remain – particularly over the curious timing of the priests’ decision to go public with allegations about incidents dating back 30 years. The subsequent kicking of the cardinal, which continues, has been nauseating. But no one ever said that a free press at work is a pretty sight. As Matthew D’Ancona wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, journalists don’t expect to be popular; they ask only to be allowed to go on doing their job.

Was the O’Brien story in the public interest? As things stand, yes. We can question motives and methods, but the abuse of power at the centre of the allegations made publication legitimate. It is, however, worth remembering that the immediate response of the Roman Catholic Church was an attempt to kill the story with an implicit threat. If there has been an apology from the Catholic Media Office for this, I have failed to spot it. But I did see the same Mr Kearney all over the BBC a week or so later, musing philosophically on the crisis engulfing his church.

Consider now what would have happened if the four priests had kept their powder dry for a couple of years until the revered Cardinal O’Brien had gone into retirement. The corresponding Saturday in February 2015 might well have had a rather different outcome.

Let’s look at February 2015 as if it were already history and McCluskey’s proposals for a ferocious press regulatory regime had been adopted.

The Observer, a paper owned south of the border, would have been compulsorily registered by the Press Council of Scotland and answerable to that council for any news which it chose to disseminate in Scotland, either in print or online. Mr Kearney or his successor would no doubt have responded, as Mr Kearney responded in February 2013, that the newspaper should not publish the story and that the cardinal was consulting his lawyers.

But any good PR man would have had a great deal of additional ammo at his disposal. He would have had in front of him a copy of the stringent code of practice of the state-controlled Press Council of Scotland with its dim view of intrusion into private lives and of unsubstantiated allegations made by persons who choose to remain anonymous. He would have been aware of the punitive sanctions for serious breaches of the code. Scotland being a small country, he would probably have known some if not all of the members of the council, perhaps even broken bread with one or two.

In this imagined environment more hostile to journalistic exposé, it is impossible to say what the Observer would have done faced not only with an implied warning of legal action but with the Sword of MacDamocles hanging over it – McCluskey’s regulatory body twice buttressed by statute and with every media enterprise meekly mandated and nicely neutered. By February 2015 the group which owns the Observer would be stacking up almost unsustainable annual losses (as indeed it is even now). Why take an unnecessary risk? My guess is that the peace of mind of the revered cardinal would have been undisturbed by a Saturday telephone call. Keith lad has been unlucky. The timing was a bit off from his point of view.

If I mention this case at length it is only because it happens to be the current one. There will be others to surprise and intrigue us before the day of judgement, or the day of the referendum, whichever occurs sooner. But if McCluskey gets his way, fewer will see the light of day. He proposes a solution to the very limited media misbehaviour north of the border which would do credit to the People’s Republic of China. And still the ruling party will not repudiate it.

Many readers of this magazine will loathe the press. Some may positively embrace the draconian proposals of Lord McCluskey and his ‘expert group’. Others are in no position to raise their heads above the parapet of their professional lives. Still, something has to be done.

For once in my life, I have been propelled into a kind of activity. I have decided to organise a petition of the Scottish Review community, and others who feel like joining us, calling on the first minister and the other Scottish party leaders to reject the compulsory registration of newspapers, magazines and internet publications. It is not only lunatic in its impracticality, but sinister in its implications for free speech. I invite readers who share this view to sign the petition.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review