No comment: the ‘spokespersons’ and their secrets

0
467

By Kenneth Roy

Last Wednesday, just after 9am, I sent emails to two Scottish public bodies. Neither email could be accused of being long or complicated. The first was to Transport Scotland:

I am the editor of the Scottish Review online current affairs magazine and may be doing a piece tomorrow on the Dunragit bypass and the destruction of a site of archaeological interest that this work will involve.

 

By Kenneth Roy

Last Wednesday, just after 9am, I sent emails to two Scottish public bodies. Neither email could be accused of being long or complicated. The first was to Transport Scotland:

I am the editor of the Scottish Review online current affairs magazine and may be doing a piece tomorrow on the Dunragit bypass and the destruction of a site of archaeological interest that this work will involve. Can you tell me when work on the bypass will begin and confirm for me that archaeological excavations are still taking place on the site? Finally, will the results of these excavations be published and if so by whom?

At 3.30 the same afternoon I received this reply:

Dunragit bypass will deliver vital improvements for road users and the local community upon completion. As with all road schemes, we are taking the necessary steps to ensure any cultural and environmental impacts will be mitigated. We are currently carrying out archaeological work under the guidance and advice of Historic Scotland. The results will be published by Historic Scotland and construction of the Dunragit bypass is expected to start in the spring.

My second email was to Historic Scotland:

I am the editor of the Scottish Review online current affairs magazine and may be doing a piece tomorrow on the Dunragit bypass and the destruction of a site of archaeological interest that this work will involve. Can you tell me how you rate the archaeological site at Dunragit and why, since you opposed the bypass a decade ago, you now have no objections to it?

At 5.15 the same afternoon I received this reply:

Historic Scotland is providing advice to Transport Scotland to help mitigate any impacts on the archaeological remains at Dunragit. The archaeological work will include a published report of the findings.

So this is how my five questions were dealt with:

When will work on the bypass begin? – Answered
Are archaeological excavations still taking place on the site? – Answered
Will the results of the excavations be published? – Answered
How do you rate the archaeological site at Dunragit? – Not answered
Why, since you opposed the bypass a decade ago, do you now have no objections to it? – Not answered

To summarise: of the five questions, only the three strictly factual ones were answered.

The question which involved the expression of an opinion or judgement was completely ignored. I was curious to know whether Historic Scotland shared the view of its fellow quango, VisitScotland, that Dunragit is ‘one of the most important Stone Age sites in Scotland’ (a ‘Scottish Stonehenge’ as others have called it). Presumably there must have been someone at Historic Scotland last Wednesday who was qualified to give an expert appraisal. Or would an honest answer simply have been too embarrassing? Historic Scotland is already mired in controversy over its foolish endorsement of a quarry close to New Lanark conservation village. To despoil one precious site of national significance may be regarded as unfortunate. To despoil two at the same time looks like carelessness.

Just as blatantly, the question which challenged Historic Scotland to defend or explain an apparent change of policy was also ignored. A scheme decisively rejected a decade ago is suddenly acceptable. What has brought about such an extraordinary volte-face? Historic Scotland wasn’t prepared to engage me on this intriguing question of public interest.

Look again at the two replies. They were so similar they might almost have come from the same hand – even down to the use of the meaningless word ‘mitigate’ which appears in both. Historic Scotland’s is particularly feeble. Its few words hang limp from the page, bleached of life.

Such statements are characteristic of the daily output of the ‘spokesperson’, an anonymous breed whose job, ostensibly at least, is communication with the outside world. The spokesperson’s essential purpose is, however, non-communication, expressed in a determination to say nothing of interest or consequence beyond the blandly expedient. It seems that the more spokespersons there are, the less frankness there is in public life and the more difficult it becomes to extract the truth about anything.

I could resort to a freedom of information request. I’ve tried that with some success in the past, particularly over the publication of salaries and benefits of NHS executives. But it takes weeks, sometimes months, to make any progress with FoI applications. By the time I got a response to my questions about the Scottish Stonehenge, the mitigating bulldozers would be treading warily over pre-historic bones.

Long before ‘freedom’ of information, it was possible to ring a senior minister at home and get a quote from him personally, unmediated by special advisers and PR functionaries. I did better than that with Alec Douglas-Home when he was foreign secretary during one of the Icelandic cod wars. I simply lifted the phone, called The Hirsel, and asked Sir Alec if he would drop everything and get to the BBC in Edinburgh for a live interview with me on nationwide TV. He did just that, drove himself to Edinburgh, and arrived unaccompanied.

The happy days of open communication with important people are long over. But we have travelled too far in the opposite direction. If only three questions out of five are being answered, and all the difficult ones are being dodged, the spokespersons are no more than gatekeepers of institutionalised secrecy.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review