Press not to blame for Aitken’s failures


by Jolene Cargill, Social Affairs Editor

A columnist in a certain national newspaper wrote yesterday that Bill Aitken’s comments about the rape case in Glasgow were “nothing more than speculation” and that the press mounted a witchunt which cost him his job.

Talk about shooting the messenger.  If anyone is responsible for his predicament surely it’s Bill Aitken.  Said columnist should reconsider the role of the press.  Surely it is to call those in public office to account for their actions and their views, informed or not, which make their way into policy decisions.

In this case, Aitken headed up the justice committee which formulates rape laws, yet automatically took a position on the case before he knew the facts.  Despite his experience that position was to cast suspicion on the victim rather than the perpetrator.  It was not a considered position but it was, undeniably, a revealing one.  There is no smoke without fire.

And yet, the columnist springs to his defence.  “Given that he is recognised as someone with a record of examining the issues behind and causes of crime, was he not entitled to speculate about the deeper rooted causes of rape?”

According to the full transcript, Aitken ‘speculated’ about the cause of the rape before he knew anything about the case, as he has admitted himself.  And more importantly, he didn’t in any way attempt to get to the bottom of any ‘deeper rooted causes’ of rape.  Exactly what ‘causes’ does he infer here?  For Aitken a frequent ‘cause’ seemed to be women getting drunk.  If Aitken or said columnist wants to open out the issue and get down to the root causes of rape that could at least be an attempt to be constructive.

No, what he did was to laugh about the circumstantial evidence of how far he thought the woman was dragged into the lane.  His concern was with the plausibility of the facts, as reported by the victim.  Why can’t the columnist understand that the ‘speculation’ was irresponsible? People rightly take exception with a view predicated on the assumption that a rape victim brutally attacked by three men somehow must have been doing something to put herself in the way of danger.

After conducting an interview with Aitken, had the Sunday Herald not reported his comments they would have failed in their responsibility; this is in the public interest, case closed.  And the complaint ‘oh but it was off the record’ doesn’t cut it when you are an experienced politician talking to a journalist.

Of course Aitken’s explanation of his ‘off the record’ chat seemed plausible if a little naive.  But it doesn’t detract from the serious offence caused by his first, honest reaction.  What he did afterwards was simply damage control; the submission of a statement about how rape was a horrific crime and the unreserved apology, is too little too late.

According to the columnist in question the public imposes standards on politicians that ‘they’ would never dream of judging themselves by.  And so ‘we’ should.  Politicians know what they are getting in for when they sign up.  Perhaps the public don’t get the chance to see exactly what the job of an MSP entails from day to day, the hard work and constant pressure.  But they can’t seriously expect the public or press to give them a long leash.

Ultimately they enter into a contract of responsibility and if we are to trust them with our wages, our health service, our children’s education, and the future of our country, we should demand nothing less than honour.  Call me old fashioned.

If ‘we’ the public do get angry at politicians, it’s probably not as a result of character assassination in the media.  Not to say that papers don’t pursue their own political agenda or denigrate parties with opposing views.  Newsnet was set up precisely to address the gap in the debate about Scottish independence.

It is to say that as consumers of media, we will make up our own minds.  Not just from what we read in the press but from what politicians give us to work with.  For example, they can choose to have a real debate about the issues in Parliament or just carry on taking pot shots at the opposition.  Many seem blissfully unaware that ‘we’ the public do know the difference.

Public anger directed at politicians is more likely to be for tangible and just reasons; they have claimed money for repairing their moat, or lied under oath, or said something stupid to a journalist over the phone.  And that is not the fault of the press.  It is thanks to the press for doing their job.