Leveson and free speech – The strange case of Jack McLean


Part 1: ‘A friend’ speaks – By Kenneth Roy

One lunchtime last week, when a colleague gave me an email from the Scottish correspondent of a London-based daily asking for the whereabouts of Jack McLean and wondering if Mr McLean might wish to defend himself against allegations being made against him, my first instinct was that they had got the wrong man – that it was some other reputation which was being destroyed at the Leveson inquiry into media standards. Jack McLean: a common enough name.

I had complacently assumed that the inquiry would be mostly concerned with telephone hacking and other dodgy dealings of the sort that led to the closure of the News of the World and the subsequent appointment of Lord Justice Leveson. Mr McLean is phobic about almost all aspects of new technology. He does not know how to use email and it surprises me that he possesses a mobile phone; it is unlikely that he has ever sent a text; if an article of his appears online, a copy of it must be printed out and sent to him in the post. The idea that such an unreconstructed luddite had become the first Scottish journalist to have his features re-arranged at the Leveson inquiry seemed too implausible for words.

And yet there he was all over the television – athough not in person.

I phoned Mr McLean at his house and said that the Scottish correspondent of a London-based daily wished to talk to him and that he must prepare himself for a difficult few days. Mr McLean knew nothing of what was happening; the Leveson inquiry had not informed him that incriminating evidence was being heard over a column he had written in the Glasgow Herald (as it then was) 20 years ago.

What then transpired in the course of our private conversation was just that – private. Its upshot was that I got in touch with the Scottish correspondent of the London-based daily and said that Mr McLean knew of his interest but that, for the time being, he was too shocked to say anything.

The correspondent promptly used Twitter to announce to the world that, according to ‘a friend’, Jack McLean was shocked.

I don’t complain of this. It was what I had said; it was how Mr McLean had sounded. No doubt the correspondent gained a slight competitive edge over his rivals with the disclosure that he had spoken, if not to the man himself, to someone regarded as ‘a friend’. I have not been anyone’s friend before – at least in this public sense. Normally, when a newspaper says that it has spoken to a friend or friends of some well-known person, what it really means is that it has spoken to the actual person, but on a non-attributable basis. It is interesting to know that, in this elaborate world of media shadow-boxing, there is such a thing as a genuine friend; even if the genuine friend turns out to be only me.

What was impressive about the correspondent’s use of Twitter was its breathtaking speed. I had scarcely had time to replace the receiver before my assessment of the state of mind of Jack McLean – who was swiftly becoming the most notorious man in Britain – was relayed. It took no more than a few seconds.

Not the least remarkable fact about the strange case of Jack McLean was the frightening speed with which he was demonised; it took no time at all, for example, for it to be put about that he was a ‘tabloid reporter’.

Journalism has been around in one shape or another since the Romans, but it was not until Victorian times that improvements in literacy and technology made it widely popular. But what was printed in the newspapers was not news as we understand it now. Articles were written by hand and put in the post, rather as the articles of Jack McLean continue to be put in the post to their author 150 years later. If dispatches were written from abroad, it took weeks for them to see the light of day.

The electric telegraph speeded things up. Russell, who exposed the conditions of the British troops in the Crimean war, provoking national outrage, was one of the pioneers of the telegraph, although even Russell continued to write many of his reports in the form of long, leisurely letters. The weeks between news and its publication were turning into days, but it took a very long time for the days to be converted into hours. That came with the explosion of television news.

Twenty-four-hour news accelerated the process. Correspondents faced with the insatiable demands of the hungry beast spent more time facing the camera, providing endless ‘updates’, than they did in sourcing the story or checking the facts. The medium itself had begun to enjoy precedence over the message; the hours between news and its publication had been compressed into minutes. And now, with social networking, the minutes have been mercilessly cut to seconds.

Not the least remarkable fact about the strange case of Jack McLean was the frightening speed with which he was demonised; it took no time at all, for example, for it to be put about that he was a ‘tabloid reporter’. He has never worked for a tabloid newspaper and he has never been a reporter. Otherwise the claim was completely accurate.

A consequence of the ruthless speed with which information (or misinformation) is disseminated is the demand for instant reaction. The most common complaint against the Scottish Review – we hear it every week in one context or another – is that the magazine fails to supply a box for immediate responses to articles. When we point out that there is an old-fashioned letters column called ‘The Cafe’, aggrieved parties are seldom appeased. A reply to ‘The Cafe’ takes all of 24 hours to appear when the popular demand is for 24 minutes – or 24 seconds. The superior merits of a considered response are explained and defended with increasing difficulty.

One correspondent said recently that we were being ‘unfair’ in not publishing his rebuttal at once. I offered him space for a more reflective piece, which we duly published; honour was satisfied. A hasty response in a comments box would have been much less effective – as I suspect our correspondent himself now accepts.

As for the strange case of Jack McLean, and its implications for free speech, much more needs to be said. But not instantly. It can wait until tomorrow.

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