The Leveson inquiry – Should we start worrying about free speech?


Part 2: Questions of taste – By Kenneth Roy

When Jack McLean, the first Scottish journalist to have been put through the mincer at the Leveson inquiry into media standards, was introduced to the readers of the Glasgow Herald on 1 May 1981, the then editor of the paper, Arnold Kemp, issued a health warning of remarkable prescience:

‘The Editor regrets to announce that in a moment of inattention he made an agreement for Jack McLean to contribute regular articles…The Urban Voltaire has, however, been given stringent warnings on questions of taste, although readers of an irritable or genteel disposition are advised to give him a miss.’

Mr McLean himself, many years later in a volume of autobiography, referred to the persona created for him as that of ‘the cheeky wee droll who pushed the barriers out a bit’; even his alter-ego, the Urban Voltaire, was not ‘self-styled’ (as is usually claimed) but thrust upon him, perhaps by Arnold Kemp. In the same book I am cast as the ‘good but by no means uncritical friend’ who understood both his melancholy and the ‘sulphurous vituperation’ of his personality.

By August 1991, Mr McLean had forgotten those ‘stringent warnings on questions of taste’ if indeed he had ever taken them seriously. In one of his columns that month, he did not ‘push the barriers out a bit’, but took those barriers and smashed them.

A few weeks earlier, 15-year-old Barbara Glover had been ordered to be detained without limit of time for the murder of Diane Watson, aged 16, in the playground of Whitehill Secondary School in Glasgow. Diane’s friends carried her the short distance to her house, where she died of stab wounds. It was a disturbing case to say the least, made more tragic still by the suicide 18 months later of Diane’s brother Alan, who was found with press cuttings in his hands.

It seems that one of these cuttings was Mr McLean’s article of August 1991 in which he discussed the trial and sentence of Barbara Glover in unusually emotional language. The sulphurous vituperation in this case was directed at Scottish justice. But the object of his ‘long-lost compassion’, re-ignited by the Glover case, was not the victim, Diane Watson, but the perpetrator.

Mr McLean dwelt on what he saw as the iniquity of the ‘horrible punishment’ and ‘savage fate’ of Barbara Glover. ‘I see no rationality to the sentence…Why are we adding one tragedy to another? Nothing can bring back young Diane Watson’s life, nothing at all. To add the destruction of another child’s life, a child who will live with the appalling trauma of her terrible deed in that moment of madness, cannot be, surely, acceptable to a civilised people’.

Was it a moment of madness? Since Barbara Glover had packed the murder weapon in her bag before going to school that morning, there was evidence of premeditation. No matter: Mr McLean, unexpectedly reinvented as a bleeding heart liberal, came close to suggesting that Miss Glover, convicted of murder, should not have been detained at all. It is a point of view which would not have seen the light of day in the Daily Mail. Mr McLean, the resident controversialist, got away with it in the Glasgow Herald because Arnold Kemp, his patron, ran a fine, radical paper of independent voices.

There should have been an apology. It would not quite have disposed of the matter, but it would have softened the bitter resentment and frustration that the grieving family has been carrying for so long.

Mr McLean’s error of judgement – his professional moment of madness – was not to suggest that Barbara Glover should have gone unpunished  but to make offensive references to her victim based on a very poor understanding of the case. He said that it was a case based on class: that while Barbara Glover (‘lost distressed child’) came from the wrong side of the tracks, Diane Watson had ‘the smart white socks of the daughter of the labour aristocracy’. I am not sure what the ‘labour aristocracy’ amounts to, or how people in Dennistoun, Glasgow, qualify for membership of it, but the Watsons were struggling badly. Mr Watson was unemployed; Mrs Watson was working part-time as a school meals attendant; the household income amounted to £75 a week. Yet Mr McLean hinted that Barbara Glover had been provoked by ‘snobbish disdain’.

At the risk of losing my status as the author’s good but by no means uncritical friend, it is necessary to state that this was deeply unpleasant stuff – ‘horrible’ to borrow one of Mr McLean’s adjectives – and that Mr and Mrs Watson were entitled to feel sickened by it. There should have been an apology. It would not quite have disposed of the matter, but it would have softened the bitter resentment and frustration that the grieving family has been carrying for so long. There was no apology. It is too late for one now.

Nevertheless, two questions remain. The first is a question of personal fairness. Is it fair that one bad lapse should ruin a man’s reputation, as Jack McLean’s has been ruined by exposure at the Leveson inquiry 20 years after the events complained of?

The second is of more general importance. This inquiry was set up as a result of, and in the immediate aftermath of, the telephone hacking scandal and the revelations of widespread corruption and criminality involving the Metropolitan Police as well as the media. There was no expectation – or, if there was, it passed me by – that the inquiry would also be concerned with the expression of opinion. Are Leveson and his advisers, including the director of the human rights organisation Liberty, now telling us that in effect nothing is off-limits and that we should start worrying about free speech itself?

Click here for part 1


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