Private Lives, Public Morality (1)


Soon, I may need a licence to edit the Scottish Review

by Kenneth Roy

We started off [the twentieth century] accepting our rulers who said, ‘Leave it to us. We know where we’re going’. The 1939-45 war caused a broadcasting of ideas, a fertilising of optimism. That brought Labour to power in a spirit of goodwill. Slowly disillusion grew. Then suddenly we began to be bombarded with reports of pollution, political corruption, manipulation, regression. The trust in a caring minorty weakened.
R F Mackenzie, Scottish teacher and radical, 1989

Since this column last appeared a fortnight ago, a seedy newspaper has closed and some of the creepy-crawlies associated with it have been arrested or fired.  By this time next year, one or two – perhaps many more – may be begging for that ‘soft-touch justice’ which they once deplored. How poignant a moment, or series of moments, that will be.

Since this column last appeared, a parallel world – the real one – has gone on suffering.  The famine in East Africa, the spectre of a second financial crash, fuel poverty in this country, and – of particular interest to the Scottish Review – the uncertain fate of 31,000 old people in care homes have all received scant attention.  In the self-regarding asylum of the media, a closed institution populated by corrupt journalists, bent coppers and compromised politicians, all that matters is what happens within its walls – the delusions, the night sweats, the fatuous lies.

Since this column last appeared, I have been asking myself a troubling question.  Am I a journalist?  Obviously I’d rather not be, but there is some incriminating form to consider.  I have not worked full-time in that capacity since the age of 22, and there were long periods of my life – probably most of it – when I was doing other things.  Even now, my main occupation is running a programme for young people, which seems more precious than ever somehow.

Yet it is unlikely that my dilettante status will save me from the robust regulatory framework which the British establishment, eager to seize upon the opportunities presented by the disturbances in the asylum in the last two weeks, will impose on what little is left of journalism.  There is a serious suggestion that, as part of the new era of tough controls over media behaviour, those who call themselves journalists will have to be licensed to practise.  Such relics as myself, in order to avoid becoming chartered, may have to resort to some form of samizdat activity of dubious legality.

The majority, however, will sign dutifully on the dotted line, promising to be good, while those coming straight from journalism schools and media studies departments, God help them, will arrive indoctrinated in the new purity.  Whatever happens – perhaps short of actual licensing – we can expect the incantation of the phrase ‘responsible journalism’, meaning journalism that does not offend or inconvenience the interests of that wing of the asylum known as the political ruling class.

To amuse myself on holiday, I went to Dr Johnson’s dictionary, the only one which it is possible to read from cover to cover for the enjoyment of it.  It contains many coarse words whose meanings are set out with admirable precision.  I developed a fondness for ‘pish’ (contemptuous exclamation), if only because there was so much humbug around, led by such eminent humbug specialists as the prime minister.  To all the talk of responsible journalism, I say: pish! I might as well exclude myself from any possibility of obtaining a licence to practise by committing this heresy to print: there are times when journalists have a duty to act irresponsibly, even unethically, if they are to hold the powerful to account.

My only defence would be the public interest, a somewhat nebulous concept. Yet I am unrepentant. The exchange on the phone helped me to understand the nature of the system and why so few public appointees ever break ranks.

Let me illustrate this unfashionable case by a tiny personal experience.

Last year, in pursuit of a story about an outfit called Southern Cross Healthcare, long before the mainstream media had exhibited the least interest in it, I tried to warn Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board about its folly in getting into bed (so to speak) with the now notorious care home operator.  I went further and wrote personally to every member of that board, putting a number of questions about its relationship with Southern Cross Healthcare and accompanying issues.  Ony the chairman replied, belatedly.  The others ignored me, despite their contractual obligation to be accountable for their actions.

Not caring to be ignored, I called an ‘executive search’ consultancy (otherwise known as head-hunters), and spoke to a helpful woman who answered the phone.  Putting on my best BBC voice, I pretended that I was interested in securing a remunerated non-executive role in the NHS in Scotland.  She asked me which part of the NHS I had in mind and I replied that I wished to serve NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.  Was there, I asked, someone in the consultancy who specialised in such non-exec placements and who might be able to assist me?  She named the partner responsible for such matters – who happened to be, not only a member of the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, but a supporter of the board’s deal with Southern Cross Healthcare.

As I wrote at the time, there was nothing improper about this man’s overlapping interests; nor about the fact that he was also one of two independent directors of Audit Scotland, the body which regulates NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.  The absence of anything wrong was emphasised when he was subsequently appointed chairman of Audit Scotland, no less.

But was my behaviour unethical?  According to the code of conduct of that risible organisation, the Press Complaints Commission, it might have been.  Since I would include membership of the board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde in the same category as incest, Highland dancing and employment by Rupert Murdoch – no-go areas for me – I was guilty of misrepresentation.  My only defence would be the public interest, a somewhat nebulous concept.  Yet I am unrepentant.  The exchange on the phone helped me to understand the nature of the system and why so few public appointees ever break ranks.  I am going with a public interest defence.

Yet, unlike the inhabitants of the asylum, I do not delude myself.  In future, either there will be no public interest defence for such mischievous actions as mine, or the public interest defence will be harder to prove: the bar will be set higher.  The biggest crime of the low life employed by Murdoch will never appear on its collective charge sheet: the crime of killing off the good with the bad.  It could even be the basis of a plea in mitigation: ‘Your Lordship, I know you’re thinking of seven years for corruption, and, quite frankly, I don’t blame you.  But consider my client’s otherwise blameless contribution to our national life.  My client is partly responsible for the death of investigative journalism.  I urge you to consider five and a half years, a reduction of 18 months for services to the state’.

By the way (as they say in Glasgow), Southern Cross Healthcare collapsed a week ago, owing £25 million to the Inland Revenue and £45 million to other creditors, leaving 31,000 old people desperately insecure.  Dave has given an assurance that they will continue to be looked after – but who believes Dave any longer?  He’s the prime minister who regularly went horse-riding with Brooks and socialised with her 48 hours after Vince Cable, for going to ‘war’ with Murdoch, was stripped of his cabinet responsibility for the BSkyB deal; the same prime minister who twice hired Brooks’s pal Coulson, bringing him into the heart of government, allegedly prevailed upon to do so by Brooks herself; the same prime minister who, on the very day Southern Cross went under, was banging on about handing over care of the vulnerable to the private sector.  When such a man as Cameron promises to safeguard the interests of 31,000 old people in bankrupt care homes, it is time to worry.

Why I am telling you this about Southern Cross Healthcare?  I expect you read it in the papers.  On the other hand, maybe you didn’t.

Article reproduced courtesy of Kenneth Roy – Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.