Don’t publish, don’t be damned: welcome to the new age of timidity

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By Kenneth Roy

It is possible that, by the end of this week, we will be hearing the phrase ‘light touch’ in relation to the regulation of the British press. I hope it fools nobody. ‘Light touch’ will be the weasel words used by politicians to conceal the reality of state interference in the conduct of newspapers.

The likeliest result could be avoided. David Cameron could decide to reject Leveson. But that would make him look a fool – why set up the accursed inquiry only to spurn its recommendations? – and would invite accusations that he was too terrified to do anything ahead of next year’s trials of Andrew Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, which could finish him anyway.

He could secure a temporary release from the nightmare of his own making. He could attempt a compromise: two more years of self-regulation – a farewell visit to the last-chance saloon; half-pints only – with Leveson as the sanction for any further breaches of the peace. But that feels pretty feeble too. There may no way out for the prime minister: he seems destined to disappear down the plughole of history as the man who gagged the British press and incurred the everlasting wrath of the Daily Mail. Though I cling to the hope that I’m wrong.

Spare a thought, too, for one of Lord Leveson’s advisers, that celebrated guardian of liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, if she has to sign her name to a state-regulated press. It may be difficult to restrain an old-fashioned Scotch guffaw at the fine irony of it all. But, having once encountered Ms Chakrabarti on a platform, and we’re not talking about Glasgow Central, I feel confident she will find a way of reconciling a state-regulated press with the principles she holds dear. Expect a long, self-justifying Guardian piece followed by the usual moralising on ‘Question Time’.

Welcome, then, to the new age of timidity: don’t publish, don’t be damned. But the inconvenient truth is that a weak press will be nothing new. There is a saying much-loved by hacks: ‘What need to bribe the good old British journalist, seeing what the man will do unbribed’. If only it were so. In my experience – almost exclusively in Scotland, although I don’t expect it was much different in Fleet Street – our supposedly glorious tradition of investigative journalism was largely a myth.

Among the many things I have discovered in my extensive trawl through the half-forgotten world of post-war Scotland is the almost creepy acquiescence of the serious press. I shouldn’t be shocked; I both sensed and experienced it when I worked as a newspaper journalist. But I had forgotten the extent of it – the paralysing reluctance to ask awkward questions; the failure to rock any boats, however dodgy their condition. If you want a glimpse into life after Leveson, look no further back than the Scottish newspapers as recently as the 1970s.

I’ll give three examples. If I had the space, I could give you hundreds.

Example 1. In January 1971, 66 football supporters were crushed to death on stairway 13 of Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow. There had been accidents there before, yet it was revealed at the fatal accident inquiry that the management of Rangers Football Club had failed to adopt a recommendation by the police for improving the safety of stairway 13. The performance of the club’s directors in the witness box – three gave evidence – was a masterpiece of prevarication: none remembered a thing about a meeting with the police or its outcome.

If there was ever an opportunity for the Scottish press to do some useful digging in the public interest, this was it. Yet the Glasgow Herald simply reported the FAI straight with no follow-up. When it was all over, the paper had no comment to make on the inquiry into one of the greatest tragedies ever to afflict the city and nothing to say about the selective amnesia of the Rangers directors.

Example 2. In 1972, after the discovery of oil in the North Sea but before the first of it had come ashore, the then prime minister, Edward Heath, seriously considered allowing Scotland to benefit directly from its revenues. He proposed a ‘novel’ scheme to prevent the Treasury getting its hands on the loot first, and instructed his senior civil servant, Robert Armstrong, to prepare a paper on how this might be done.

When the proposal went to cabinet it was bitterly opposed not only by the chancellor of the exchequer, Anthony Barber, but by the secretary of state for Scotland, Gordon Campbell. Heath reluctantly dropped the idea and the SNP soon materialised as a political force – the eventuality which Heath had feared and which his plan had been intended to thwart.

This was a major story with profound consequences for the future of Scottish and British politics, yet it only emerged with the release of cabinet papers 30 years later. That level of official secrecy is inconceivable now – and democracy is all the healthier for a more open relationship between politics and the press. But in 1972 it was the norm. After Leveson, it could be the norm again.

Example 3. In the early 1970s there was a spate of under-reported stories in the Scottish press about the ill-treatment of children and young people in various residential institutions. There is one in front of me as I write this: a scandal in Glasgow about sadistic goings-on in a remand home, coming hard on the heels of a scandal in Perth about sadistic goings-on in a detention centre. The newspapers did nothing about these abuses of power. They failed to hold the authorities to account and accepted without question what they were told. They might as well have printed the press releases. They more or less did.

There were honourable, brave exceptions. At the Scotsman, Magnus Magnusson briefly headed an investigative unit which exposed among other things corruption in the new Highlands and Islands Development Board; south of the border the Sunday Times Insight team did good work. But there is livelier journalism going on routinely now without the label ‘investigative’. As a result, our masters get away with less than they ever did before, although they still get away with too much.

The downside of the bolder, less deferential press of the last 30 years has been illegal intrusion into private lives. There are criminal laws to deal with it, but the reign of terror exercised by Rupert Murdoch, and the toadying of politicians to his acolytes, meant that these laws were rarely if ever invoked. As soon as they were – finally and belatedly – there should have been no inquiry. Leveson, exceeding his brief, turned the public hearings into a show called ‘I’m a celebrity, get me in there’. He is something of a celebrity himself now. But, come Thursday, beware his light touch.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review