Freedom of the press?

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Mandy Rhodes

PPA Columnist of the Year 2007

PPA Scotland Feature Writer of the Year & Editor of the Year 2006

For me, one of the most scandalous things to come out so far from the sorry saga of Steven Purcell’s tragic professional demise is that so many people have admitted after the event that they knew of the altogether inappropriate behaviour of the leader of Scotland’s largest council. Politicians, journalists and lawyers alike, apparently, had direct or indirect knowledge for years about the personal habits of the leader of Glasgow City Council and chose to ignore it. It’s bad enough that the Labour Party hierarchy has failed to come out and say anything coherent, either damning or otherwise, about the allegations made against one of its own but individually, party members are singing like canaries. One high-ranking Labour insider told me that they had known for three years but kept quiet because an exposé would have damaged the brand.  And that source is not alone.

 

But much more damaging is the claim that some Glasgow-based newspaper editors actually chose to keep a lid on a story that is potentially so explosive, it threatens to not only irreparably damage one man’s life but also our whole notion of local democracy, politics and freedom of the press. Did a misguided loyalty to a regular Friday afternoon drinking date, dubbed ‘The Ritz Club’, which included the editors of rival red tops, the Herald’s departing editor-in-chief and Purcell himself, influence reporting of the unravelling scandal? And why was it left to the Edinburgh-based Scotsman newspaper and the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail to go big on what could prove to be the biggest political scandal of the year for all the press? Coverage in Glasgow has been remarkably limited. The Herald has published scant few letters about the affair despite it being the talk of the steamie. Bloggers are finding their posts being rejected if they contain the word Purcell and in the days following the scandal breaking, the story was hidden well inside the pages of that paper and others based in the west. People in Glasgow and beyond are asking why. Why would a locally based newspaper ignore a duty to its readers, many of whom will pay council tax in Glasgow, to not doggedly attempt to expose a high level public servant who had admitted illegal drug use, been visited by the Scottish Drug and Crime Enforcement Agency and was clearly on the verge of a personal tragedy? Newspapers, particularly in Glasgow, had a reputation for terrier-like paternalism to readers. Not that long ago the Evening Times would be leading on the Purcell investigation, calling the council to account and questioning what more was there to be uncovered. But not in today’s Scotland.

And while the increasingly hysterical cyber Nats point to what they see as a conspiracy that saw Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon splashed all over the front pages for days on end on what was, at best, a spurious attempt to link party fundraising tomfoolery with highoffice corruption, their claims were dismissed, along with calls by an SNP councillor for an investigation into organised crime in Glasgow, as Nationalist paranoia. But now it is looking increasingly near to the bone. Purcell’s press profile was always bigger than the man himself. Perhaps we should have been more honest in reflecting on the quality of the man and the speeches he gave and wondered more about the calibre of the rest of the Scottish Labour Party when he was picked out by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as being the party’s rising star; a future First Minister. Steven may have been universally liked and, as I can testify, amiable company but in all honesty, he was underwhelming as a big, political beast. And perhaps that is the danger of personality created by media, the substance never quite lives up to the headline. But he also had enormous power and influence. Given that he was visited two years ago by police and that interview was held on council property and in the presence of another council official, why was this not made public then and why was Purcell allowed to continue in office? And why did Purcell, a man honorable and brave enough to stand up publicly and come clean about his homosexuality, not do the decent thing then?

The heavy handed legal threats meted out by Purcell’s personal lawyers in the light of the recent revelations have far too easily quashed much analysis and further investigation of this story but the Fourth Estate is charged with keeping an honest watch on the other estates,on the premise that this will safeguard democracy. It seems that this time around the more macho elements of the Fourth Estate may have forgotten their role as watchdogs and turned into poodles.

 

This article first appeared in Holyrood.com magazine – click here to visit site

 

It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Mandy Rhodes.