Control of free speech in Scotland starts today

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By Kenneth Roy

Kevin Myers is an Irish journalist of right-wing views whose columns I used to enjoy when he appeared more often in the British press than he seems to do now. There was very little about Mr Myers that our Scottish liberal-left commentariat would find agreeable – I didn’t find him all that agreeable either – but he was required reading since he was such a brilliant writer.

In the summer of 2008, not long after the establishment of the Press Council of Ireland, Kevin Myers became one of the first Irish columnists to fall foul of the new system of press regulation over there. His transgression is of some interest, if only because the Press Council of Ireland is the post-Leveson model of choice for our first minister. It is likely that we will soon have a Press Council of Scotland constituted along similar lines.

So what happened in the Kevin Myers case? He wrote an article in an Irish newspaper arguing that giving aid to Africa only resulted in increasing its population and its problems. Two people complained to the Press Council of Ireland that the article breached no fewer than four principles of the council’s code of practice: (a) accuracy; (b) fairness and honesty; (c) respect for rights; (d) incitement to hatred.

The council decided that it ‘did not have clear grounds’ (whatever that meant) to make any findings in relation to (a) accuracy; (b) fairness and honesty; or (c) respect for rights. It did find, under (d), that the article was ‘likely to cause grave offence’ – apparently to every single person living in the continent of Africa – but ‘did not find reasons to conclude’ that the article was likely to stir up hatred or had been written with that purpose.

In other words, Kevin Myers was cleared, sort of. But the council, in its adjudication, decided to have a go at his journalism anyway. It found that ‘the mode of presentation was marked by rhetorical extravagance and hyperbole…employing a level of generalisation that was distorting and seriously insulting’ and that ‘the article resorted, in several instances, to language that was gratuitously offensive’.

This was not about phone-hacking. This was not about invasion of privacy. This was not about any of the ostensible reasons for setting up the Leveson inquiry. This was an attempt to inhibit the freedom of expression of a writer, an exceptionally good one, by formally rebuking him for his prose style. Many of the judgements of the Press Council of Ireland are in similar vein.

At the risk of indulging in a mode of presentation marked by rhetorical extravagance and hyperbole, and of employing a distorting level of generalisation, I have to inform the tender little shoots who serve on the Press Council of Ireland that these sins are part of the rough trade of opinion journalism. Many of the greatest columnists have had no hesitation in aiming for the jugular, even if it meant causing grave offence.

Among my favourites, the three Ws – Waterhouse, Watkins and Worsthorne, the J of Js – the monstrous John Junor – and the two Pauls – Foot and Johnson – were not above the various excesses deplored by the Press Council of Ireland, although I am not sure that any of them succeeded in insulting an entire continent as Mr Myers is absurdly alleged to have done. Part of the pleasure of reading these wonderful stylists was to savour the very qualities – including blistering polemic – that the Press Council of Ireland is so anxious to suppress.

What would they rather have? A terminal politeness, no doubt, in which no one is ever rude about anyone and in which the causing of grave offence is punishable by an official slur on a professional reputation. It must be terribly convenient for politicians, who never lower themselves to distorting levels of generalisation, and who never cause grave offence by their words and deeds, to be protected against journalists who do.

Who are these people, the members of the Press Council of Ireland, who spend their sad lives stamping out rhetorical extravagance? The chairman is a retired diplomat. The rest of the lay membership (a majority of the council of 13) consists of three lawyers (surprise, surprise), a couple of academics, and the token representative of the third sector, all of whom serve on a variety of other committees. The Irish working class – who account for a majority of the newspaper-reading public – are nowhere in this drearily predictable assortment.

In addition to the usual suspects, there are six representatives of the newspaper industry. Their names mean nothing to me. There is no Fintan O’Toole and, needless to say, no Kevin Myers.

According to Seamus Dooley of the National Union of Journalists, there are many misconceptions about the Press Council of Ireland; he objects strenuously to the view that it is in effect a statutory regulator. To be fair to Mr Dooley, I will repeat what he has to say on the subject: ‘A ministerial order recognises the Press Council of Ireland once it meets standards which guarantee independence from ownership control. There’s provision for civic society involvement and representatives of the profession of journalism which is provided by the NUJ. There is no direct or indirect state involvement or control of the regulatory system’.

It is now easy to understand why the National Union of Journalists is so keen on the idea of press councils; it has secured itself a formal role in the Irish system and presumably looks forward to doing the same in Scotland. ‘Provided by the NUJ’ – yes, how neat. A service facility, no less. But it would be wrong to assume that all journalists are members of this union. Many are not. I am not. I was proud to be a minor official of the NUJ until it introduced a closed shop policy in the 1970s. It seems that a form of the closed shop has been reintroduced in Ireland. You may represent your profession on the Press Council – but only if you are a member of the NUJ. I imagine there will be many journalists in Scotland, including members of the Scottish commentariat, who will happily sign up to this restrictive model. Include me out.

But here are questions of more vital public interest.

If there is no direct or indirect state involvement or control of the regulatory system, if the system is entirely voluntary, why does the Irish parliament intend to formally scrutinise its performance in 2014? And why did the Irish justice minister declare recently that he is dissatisfied with its work and that he is seriously considering the introduction of tougher regulation? If this is not state involvement in the regulatory system, Mr Dooley, what is?

I write this before Alex Salmond makes a statement to the Scottish Parliament today (Tuesday). At the very least I hope that he does not pursue his bizarre idea of having a Court of Session judge chair the committee which will consider a regulatory system for Scotland. What on earth makes him think that the bench of judges would be unbiased on the subject of press regulation? They have everything to gain from it.

I fear that today, with the Holyrood debate, we are seeing the start of the long journey to state regulation of the Scottish media and to the control of free speech. It will, of course, be dressed up as voluntary or light touch. But no one should be in any doubt about the real agenda or its consequences.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review