How my tiny defence of fair comment could land me in jail


By Kenneth Roy

From time to time newspapers ask for permission to republish stuff from this magazine. We don’t often get paid for it, although the Scottish Daily Express did send a nice donation to the charity which publishes the little Scottish Review; thanks, chaps. Our response is always the same: yeah, go ahead why doncha.

So, when the Guardian approached me at the beginning of the summer and said they would like to recycle an editorial of mine, I agreed without hesitation. No fee; just the thrill of being in the Guardian. I then spent the whole summer cursing this philanthropic gesture. As a result of my guest appearance I found myself at the receiving end of a serious grouse to the Press Complaints Commission. The complainants couldn’t touch me as long as the article appeared only in the Scottish Review, but as soon as it got a free transfer to a PCC-monitored paper I was heading for the mincer.

I wasn’t, as it happens, saying anything disobliging about the complainants; in fact I had defended them in print on several occasions, and I am still not sure why they took such exception to the piece. But there was a sympathetic reference in it to a third party, and that seemed to light the touch paper. I don’t propose to say any more about the nature of the complaint, because I have no wish to re-ignite the dispute or cause further upset to the complainants. But the process itself was revealing and more than a little chilling.

Through a helpful intermediary at the newspaper the PCC began firing off a number of highly personal questions about the third party. How long had I known this person? I had claimed to be a friend of his: how could I prove I was a friend? (Well, that was the easy bit; he had referred to me as a friend in his autobiography.) At one stage it appeared that I might be required to furnish evidence of his state of health. This seemed to me to be exceeding reasonable inquiry and straying into an ethical grey area of intrusion. I said so rather firmly.

A few days before it was due to be considered at a full meeting of the Press Complaints Commission I got a call from the paper to say that the complaint was being dropped on condition that another article from the Scottish Review (not by me) was republished by the Guardian. The newspaper, which had worked hard for a negotiated settlement, felt that honour had been satisfied. I suppose I should have been relieved that the small ordeal, very small indeed really, was finally over. And I did feel relieved, though far from satisfied. After all the time and energy I had devoted to trying to justify my article as fair comment, I would have welcomed an adjudication from the PCC. I wanted to know if I was guilty as charged. Now I never will.

If this is how self-regulation works, I fear for the future of a free press under the much harsher system of non-self regulation which Lord Leveson is certain to recommend. No doubt he will receive a sympathetic hearing from a coalition government which yesterday found it possible to re-appoint to ministerial office a Liberal Democrat MP whose serious abuse of parliamentary expenses has been forgiven if not entirely forgotten.

The hypocrisy is blatant. A few MPs, apparently chosen at random from a cast of hundreds, went to jail and were back on the streets within weeks, and that was that. There was no Leveson-style inquiry into the standards of politics. Only the journalists were considered fair game for an inquisition, and it is safe to assume that any of them convicted of abusing their mobile phones will be released from prison in months – possibly many months – rather than weeks. Leveson became, for some, a deplorable form of pre-trial.

According to Chris Blackhurst, the editor of the Independent, who has had access to the summary findings of the Leveson report, his lordship is preparing a ‘demolition’ of Britain’s newspaper industry. Mr Blackhurst said that his initial reaction to the draft of the report was one of ‘shock and anger’, that the report was one-sided, and that it failed to reflect the reality of responsible working practices on many newspapers. None of this should surprise anyone who observed Leveson at work.

What happened to me over the summer I see as a tiny but disconcerting insight into how the future being shaped by Leveson will operate. At the moment I feel confident about telling the PCC that there are limits to my willingness to co-operate. What is the worst they could do to me? Blacken such professional reputation as I possess? But in the brave new world of press regulation, I expect that when I am asked to furnish evidence of a person’s state of health I had better get on with it or face the possibility of imprisonment for contempt.

How cheering is the thought that I will not have to stick around to submit to the bullies of the regulation industry and their sponsors in the Conservative Party. But the outlook for younger journalists, and for the press generally, is bleak indeed. I reckon I have had the best of it.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review