Part 3: Defaming the dead – By Kenneth Roy
There is a small late thing to add to my CV (not that I have ever possessed one; but I would add it if I had). It is that, at the launch of the RSE’s visionary new project, the Young Academy of Scotland, the media personality and civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti got very cross with me for suggesting that the loss of trust in such institutions as the House of Commons, the banks, the police and the press had produced a moral vacuum in British society.
She said dismissively that it was the sort of idea for an opinion piece in a newspaper. Since Miss Chakrabarti is something of a world authority on opinion pieces in newspapers (to say nothing of endless appearances on radio and TV talk shows), I am inclined to believe her.
‘The loss of trust has not produced a moral vacuum’, she added in the manner of a finger-wagging teacher, unhappily doomed to deal with idiots. It was not the place of this particular idiot to engage in a public disagreement with the Honorary Life President of the Association of Chattering Classes. I was present merely as a facilitator, with a brief to provoke. I don’t know about the delegates, who were unfailingly polite to the chair as well as ferociously bright, but I certainly succeeded in provoking Miss Chakrabarti.
Now that I am done with facilitating for one week, I am free to describe briefly the nature of the moral vacuum caused by the loss of trust in institutions, that emptiness which Miss Chakrabarti fails to sense as she moves from one studio sofa to another, taking her many opinions with her. It is everywhere, this vacuum. It is there in the wretched turnout at elections and in the more general disengagement of the young and the marginalised; it is there in the rioting and looting and, only yesterday, on the picket line; it is there in every abandoned church and darkened library; it is there etched on the faces of the people of Kilmarnock and Motherwell; it is there in the anarchy in the streets of our cities on a Saturday night.
If Miss Chakrabarti seriously believes that these maladies of our time are quite unconnected to the appalling example set for us, and to the almost universal cynicism about the motives and actions of our masters – political, financial and law-enforcing – then she and I are not living in the same unhappy kingdom.
As it happens, she is one of six ‘independent panel members’ on the Leveson inquiry into media standards. Her appointment should not surprise anyone. She is ubiquitous. Nor should it surprise us if Leveson and his advisers sense a vacuum – it could even be a moral one – and fill it with repressive legislation hostile to the interests of free speech.
Leveson and his little band of brothers (and sisters) should pick on someone their own size. Jack McLean is not their size. They need to get around to the real villains.
There are already one or two disturbing portents. Jack McLean wrote a bloody silly column in the Glasgow Herald 20 years ago – insensitive, even slightly cruel, and with no great devotion to the facts of the case. But, really, if this is the best Leveson, Chakrabarti and the rest of that lot can do, if this is the scale of their ambition in rooting out institutionalised criminality in the press and the police, the plug ought to be pulled on this inquiry, and its dreary procession of self-regarding celebs, before it does further damage.
Mr McLean has never made a corrupt payment in his life. He has never hacked a telephone. He has never so edited a voicemail that it gave hope to the family of a murdered girl that she was still alive. He has never recorded a private conversation between a victim of terrorism and his wife; and then sold a recording of the conversation to the press on the day of the atrocity. (The latter is an outrage with which I’m personally familiar.) Unlike so many implicated in this scandal, Mr McLean is not indictable. He is as I described him yesterday, a controversialist who wrote an opinion column offensive to a grieving family. It is not the crime of the century. It is not a crime at all.
Leveson and his little band of brothers (and sisters) should pick on someone their own size. Jack McLean is not their size. They need to get around to the real villains. But, hey, if meanwhile they want to summon me on a charge of gross irreverence, drag me to London and put me on oath, and issue a severe reprimand – Miss Chakrabarti does this sort of thing rather well when she is not lecturing us on the virtues of tolerance – I can only say: be my guest. I shall take Mr McLean with me, even pay his expenses, and challenge them to give the Urban Voltaire the right of reply. It is only fair. Does he not deserve the right of reply before this pompous inquisition which has facilitated the destruction of his name? Are reputations simply left to be hung out to dry? Could this be the free speech of the future – strictly controlled by bureaucrats and High Court judges?
The Scottish Government, in the light of the notorious column by Jack McLean and the subsequent complaint by the Watson family, is considering whether to introduce a law of defamation of the dead. As the English jurist James Stephen once said: ‘The dead have no rights and can suffer no wrongs’. In other words, you cannot defame the dead; which means in effect that you can. But Jack McLean was not defaming Diane Watson, the murdered schoolgirl. He was merely being tasteless and unpleasant, not at all the same as defamatory. Yet still the Scottish Government believes that, as a result of this one case, a profound change in the law may be required.
Before it makes the writing of history impossible, Mr Salmond’s administration ‘wants to consider the outcome of the current Leveson inquiry’. I rather feared it might. Has Scotland no view of its own on this thoroughly dangerous idea? Why must it wait for Leveson and his chums?
Watch this space. Or, rather, watch this moral vacuum.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review