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Showing posts with label News International. Show all posts
Showing posts with label News International. Show all posts

Friday, 5 August 2011

Labour hypocrisy unabated - put up or shut up, Johann Lamont


Put up or shut up, Johann Lamont. You have full disclosure from the SNP - and there was nothing to hide.

Let Labour do the same, both for the McConnell administration and at Westminster level. Nae chance - but then perhaps Labour and the wee Baron of Glenscorrodale do have something to hide ...


The contrasting treatment of this minor story by the Scotsman and the Herald are instructive, especially when compared with Newsnight Scotland’s coverage of the matter.

The Scotsman has no doubt that this is the big story, leads with it on page one, while virtually relegating the real big story, the Eurozone crisis, to the business section, with only a single column on page one pointing to this. It devotes all of pages 4 and 5 to it.

In stark contrast, the Herald leads with the £50m global meltdown, and has an objective headline below it, Salmond reveals News International Meetings.

Newsnight Scotland’s Isabel Fraser interviewed Johann Lamont and Stewart Hosie on this last night, and, as always, asked all the right questions of both. The programme started with an objective and fairly detailed summary of the meetings and correspondence between the First Minister and News Corp executives, setting the scene.

Isabel Fraser opened by asking Johann Lamont what Labour meant by accusing the First Minister of Scotland of “highly questionable behaviour”.

Johan Lamont said that it was “remarkable” that 40% of all Alex Salmond’s media contacts in the last four years were with News International, and he met with them on more occasions than other media groups, but she then retreated into admissions that all – or most – politicians had courted Murdoch, and came out of it badly. She touchingly thought that “a line had been drawn under it” by Ed Miliband, and piously hoped that Alex Salmond “would recognise that he had an inappropriately close relationship” with News International.

Isabel Fraser then administered the Vulcan death grip.

“So what you are saying in effect is that Alex Salmond’s behaviour was as craven and as sycophantic as Tony Blair’s, Gordon Brown’s, Ed Miliband's, Ed Balls' – the list goes on and on from the Labour Side”.

Johann was not exactly tickled pink (Labour’s favourite colour these days?) by this, and gave the muted reply that nobody came out of this well. She then, however, grabbed the spade again and began digging furiously. Other First Ministers – Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell – did not behave in this way. The way she took the bait reminded me of spinning for mackerel, or as Americans say, shooting fish in a barrel. The line was snapped taut instantly by Isabel Fraser, who reeled in calmly.

She detailed Jack McConnell’s meeting with News International executives or journalists – three as Finance Minister, one as Education Minister and ten as First Minister. “Are you saying that is inaccurate?”

No, replied Johann, but it was not 40% of all media contact in his time, nor was he offering opportunities to go to the Ryder Cup at taxpayers’ expense.

Isabel Fraser picked up on this in her first question to Stewart Hosie. Some of the offers made would have been paid from the public purse, but were they actually about developing a personal relationship between the First Minister and Rupert Murdoch or James Murdoch?

Stewart Hosie chose to focus initially on the level of disclosure by the Government – not just one year of meetings between the FM and News International but four years of the contacts between the entire Government and all parts of the media.

Like for like year, Alex Salmond met nine time compared to Ed Miliband’s fifteen times and David Cameron’s twenty seven times.

The entire Scottish Government met with News International in four years on less than half the occasions that Labour met with them in a single year in opposition.

Labour were up to their necks in hypocrisy. At a time when the Scottish government had been incredibly transparent, we still don’t know a single thing, other than the information that Isobel Fraser had just read out about Jack McConnell, nor about the meetings held by Labour in 2007, 2008 and 2009 when the Operation Motorman Report was sitting on Gordon Brown’s desk.

(Operation Motorman was a 2003 investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office into allegations of offences under the Data Protection Act by the British press.)

Isobel Fraser returned to her question – could Stewart Hosie clarify what his thoughts were on whether or not it was appropriate for the First Minister to offer hospitality to Rupert Murdoch at the taxpayers’ expense?

The Ryder Cup wouldn’t have been at the taxpayers’ expense, replied Stewart Hosie. Looking at all of the correspondence between the FM and News International – all of it – it was about jobs, economic development, inward investment, and it was about promoting Scotland abroad. One would have thought that the general public would expect their First Minister to be seeking media outlets to promote Scotland.

Isabel Fraser:Johann Lamont – will now Labour publish all correspondence, and all details of the last four years between Labour Ministers, Labour Prime Ministers and Labour advisers?”

Johann Lamont:Well, I certainly think that Ed Miliband has made it clear that he recognised that there was an inap … it was … we have … we’re in the wrong place, I think in relationship – all of us, across the board, in relation to News International.”

Isabel Fraser: Will you publish the sort of information that allows the public to make an assessment of the nature of that relationship in the way the SNP has done today?”

Johann Lamont: Well, I understand that the SNP gave the information, which was under Freedom of Information Act – clearly, under if under Freedom of Information request, the same information would be provided. I don’t think that there’s …”

Isabel Fraser: Well, why wait for that? If you’re acting in good faith, why actually wait for that – why wait for that trigger? Why not just say ‘We want to put a line underneath this …’ – just get it all out there.”

Johann Lamont: “I don’t want to sound defensive about something that’s not within my remit.” (simultaneous cross talk) “It feels very much to me at this time, in order to build trust – rebuild trust - with people you do have to be transparent. There will be a bit of to and fro’ing amongst the parties on this question – who has been open and who has not. But at the heart of this, for too long, people – given our experience in ‘92, when the party realised what happens when you’re up against something like News International – and people realise you have to have a relationship with newspapers – we understand that – but there was a recognition then that it’s gone to far. I now think Alex Salmond should recognise that there was a mixing together of two things – a bit about jobs, but an awful lot about Alex Salmond on the world stage.”

Isabel Fraser: (to Stewart Hosie) “Do you now think that Alex Salmond has to recognise that the relationship was inappropriate?”

Stewart Hosie: I think the transparency the Scottish Government showed today in publishing all of this material is first class – that’s the best disinfectant for any allegations. I think it’s time Labour came off their high horse and publish the same over the last four years.”


In just under nine minutes, Isobel Fraser and Newsnight Scotland got to the heart of this matter, in contrast to the Scotsman, which succeeded only in demonstrating why politicians get paranoid about the press, and why its circulation and influence are inexorably - and probably terminally - declining.

To those Scottish nationalist critics who think the BBC is the Great Satan, I ask where they think objective coverage of this story, and a forensic questioning of the party spokespersons would have come from, if not from the BBC?

But we are left with the fact that television journalism, powerful though it is, can be ephemeral in a way that print journalism is not.

Why is it left to a rank amateur like me – a blogger with a political agenda, but trying to be objective – to try to capture the essence of this vital analysis by Isabel Fraser and the Newsnight team in print when we have professional print journalists and supposedly ‘quality’ newspapers to do a proper, balanced analysis and ask the right questions?

(I know the answer – it’s the bloody Union, stupid – and the referendum.)


If I may join the assembled masses of commentators offering advice to the Scottish Labour Party, may I suggest that Johann Lamont does her homework before she comes on television, and that she strives for a delivery style that owes less to Lord Prescott’s fractured syntax and more to better models from her party, however hard to find they are these days?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hackergate Debate 20 July 2011 - a selection of questions

This is a selection of questions from the early part of the debate. It is almost exclusively confined to Labour questions, since virtually all of the Tory questions were of the "How wonderful you are David, Labour was twice as culpable, why are we discussing this at all?" variety.

I share the view that Labour were at least as culpable with Murdoch, however, they are not the Government - the Tory-led Coalition is, and the exposure of the shameful behaviour of News International and Cameron's cosy relationship with it came from an indefatigable Labour MP, Tom Watson, and of course, The Guardian newspaper.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Rupert Murdoch - the curtain is pulled from the Wizard of Oz

At the phone hacking enquiry - the curtain is pulled from the Wizard of Oz's cubicle, revealing - just what, exactly?

The Wizard of Oz - curtain scene

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain ...

Rupert Murdoch goes in PM David Cameron's rear entrance

Rupert Murdoch says he went in David Cameron's rear entrance at 10 Downing Street - he went in the same way with Gordon Brown and probably Tony Blair.

Seems appropriate enough to me ...

Violent attack at Murdoch Enquiry

News International - the public always knew the score …

Question Time - October 2010

Monday, 18 July 2011

The UK - and a word from a great Englishman …

Shakespeare, a great Englishman, some say the greatest, although my affections lie with Geoffrey Chaucer, put the following words in the mouth of Hamlet, who was deeply unhappy about his nation and what it had come to -

Fie on't! ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

and Marcellus later observes that

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

If Shakespeare and Chaucer were alive today, I feel that they both would feel the same about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that it has become an unweeded garden, possessed by things rank and gross in nature, and that something was rotten in it. But they would take heart from the signs all around them that the English people were beginning to assert themselves against this endemic corruption of their institutions, and they would recognise that in part, this was prompted by the Scots attempting to free themselves from the UK’s clammy embrace, while retaining their respect and ancient ties of blood, friendship and common interest with their English brothers and sisters.

The conspiracy of hereditary privilege, the unelected power of the British aristocracy and Establishment and the military/industrial complex seemed to have an iron grip of the peoples of these islands of Britain, a grip secured by control of media and patronage and, through them, the exploitation of myths of imperial glory and a romanticised ideal of Great Britain that has always been far removed from the lives of the people.

But this rickety remnant of a global empire has badly over-extended itself, and the rapaciousness and greed of its ruling class has peaked at the same time, in an unfortunate confluence of events that resulted in the Parliamentary expenses scandal, the collapse of the banks, the incompetence of the Ministry of Defence allied to the greed of those who profit from it, the failed and failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the spectacular collapse of the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, an empire that has corrupted the highest levels of government and the Metropolitan Police.

Private Eye has been chronicling for decades the financial and municipal corruption of the powerful in the centre of UK power, the South East of England, and the associated incompetence of the regulatory and legal bodies that have been so spectacularly - and in some cases, suspiciously - unable to check it.

From the Inland Revenue through the Serious Fraud Office, the Department of Public Prosecutions, the Metropolitan Police, various supine financial regulatory authorities to the pathetic and supine Press Complaints Commission, the sordid record has been detailed by Private Eye, a publication that has been unafraid of the powerful, both their blandishments and their legal bludgeons, while the mainstream media has been muzzled and trivialised, with honourable exceptions such as the Telegraph in the MPs expenses scandal, the Guardian in the phone hacking conspiracy, and Channel Four News.

But the pressure of the new media, social networking and Wikileaks has fractured the the wall of complicit silence, a pressure powerful enough to trigger the Arab Spring and global events of incalculable significance.

Here in Scotland, we have had our own little Celtic Spring, in the May election of the Scottish National Party for a historic second term. And the summer of independence beckons …

Sir Paul Stephenson, Head of the Met, resigns, and says he "will not lose sleep over his personal integrity". Clearly, he never has in the past - but the rest of us have, especially the victims of phone hacking. David Cameron appears not to be losing sleep over his personal integrity either, but then Old Etonians never do ...

But Nick Clegg may well lose sleep over the loss of his party's integrity. But not enough to resign and bring down this benighted Coalition ...

Monday, 11 July 2011

Cameron the Coward–frit, frit, frit

David Cameron - frit, frit, frit, as Maggie would have said – or feart, as Scots would say.

Dodges the phone hacking/BSkyB debate and sends the hapless Hunt - a right Hunt if ever there was one - to take the flak, unable to answer questions.

Not even a slippery Old Etonian could have avoided incriminating himself faced with the forensic questioning of the House. He has taken the 5th, so to speak, by hiding from Parliament. What does he have to hide? A cosy Cotswolds dinner party with old pals Murdoch and Rebekah Brookes can't sort this one, Davy boy.

Scots! Let’s get the hell out of this corrupt Union as soon as possible.

Saor Alba!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Baroness Buscombe–The Press Complaints Commission–“missing in action”–is grilled by Andrew Neil

What I said about Tommy Sheridan 24th December 2010

From last year’s blog on Tommy -

Sheridan: Yesterday the verdict – today the inquest

I would categorise the polarities of the reactions – media and individual - to the verdict in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial as follows -

1. Justice has been served – he brought it upon himself.  Sheridan was undoubtedly guilty. Perjury is a serious offence, and has the capacity to seriously damage the criminal justice system – it must be feel the full force of the law and be punished severely. It was not a political trial – it was public money well spent.

2. It was a political trial – a show trial – designed to satisfy News International, Rupert Murdoch, those who detest socialists of whatever ilk, and it was also a valuable smokescreen to cover the much more serious questions hanging over Andy Coulson, former editor of the NotW, now a senior advisor in the ConLib Government, over the phone tapping scandal by the News of the World. Tommy Sheridan is innocent of all the charges brought against him. There was a wide-ranging conspiracy to bring him down, one that included most of his former Scottish Socialist Party colleagues, News International, the Scottish Police and the Scottish justice system.

The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between, and that is the area I find myself in, much as I would like to be absolutely clear-cut in my view.

Let’s try to nail a few things down …

Did Tommy Sheridan bring it upon himself?

Leaving aside for the moment the question of his guilt or innocence (the Law has spoken but in a free country we may express our doubts over its verdict), Tommy Sheridan faced two crucial decision points – one when the News of the World’s made allegations about his private life, and the second when the Crown Office launched a prosecution for perjury against him and his wife, Gail Sheridan.

The original choice was to either ignore or contest the NotW allegations. To ignore them would undoubtedly have cost him his leadership of the SSP, and perhaps ultimately his parliamentary seat, but he could have survived that, diminished but not destroyed. His enemies would have claimed that his failure to contest the allegations was tantamount to an admission of guilt. His wife, the staunchly loyal - and in my book, wholly admirable - Gail Sheridan, would have stood by her husband. He could have rebuilt his career, perhaps with a new, Jack-the-Lad dimension to it, and could even have enhanced a media profile.


If Tommy knew the allegations were true, he was extremely unwise to pit himself against the Murdoch empire, and in choosing to do so, he was following the paths of Aitken and Archer, both of whom destroyed their political careers and were imprisoned as a result of their choice. Only cynical self-interest, the instincts of a gambler and vanity could have led him to contest allegations that he knew were true.

If Tommy was innocent of the charges, then given his personality and the core of his political convictions, he was inevitable going to engage in the fight, even though the risks were appalling.

My advice to him, regardless of his guilt or innocence of the charges would have been – don’t do it, Tommy.

Nobody expected him to win, and there is some evidence that he did not expect to win against such a powerful adversary. Although he trumpeted his win in typical barnstorming, populist style, he must have known the inevitability of what would follow. The die had been cast, and a 21st century tragedy was about to unfold.


The second choice was whether or not to defend himself against the perjury charges laid by the Crown. Here, in my view, he had no real choice, whatever his private knowledge of guilt or innocence – he had to defend himself. To suggest as some have done, that he should not have defended himself to save the public purse the expense of a trial is utter nonsense. It is the legal system and the nature of the police investigations that create these enormous costs, estimated at £1m for the police investigation and £4m for the trial.

Sheridan was facing the inevitability of prison and crippling costs that would lead to bankruptcy. In my view, he had to fight, guilty or innocent. Most importantly, it would have been a betrayal of his wife’s unflinching loyalty and commitment to give up. There was no way back.


I say no to both questions. It should have been left to News International to decide what their remedies were after losing the initial civil action for damages.

Perjury, an offence that is committed countless times in every court daily throughout the land, is almost never prosecuted, and the egregious exceptions to this have been political – notably the Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer (Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare) perjury prosecutions.

In both these case, the prosecutions were justified by the rationale that these were powerful politicians and public figures – both Tories – who could not be seen to flout the law. Jonathan Aitken was seen as a future Prime Minister: Archer was a life peer and had been Chairman of the Conservative Party.

The same arguments and justification have been applied to the Sheridan prosecution. Why therefore was it wrong to prosecute him?

My answer is that in the Aitken and Archer cases, only they had been accused of perjury – in the first Sheridan trial, the Crown believed that many witnesses must have perjured themselves, but they only chose to prosecute Tommy and Gail Sheridan? Why not the others? Why not the ones who had testified against Sheridan? Why was a police investigation launched that appeared to focus solely on the Sheridans?

Secondly, the context in which a prosecution would have to be launched implied a political witch hunt, and some would say, a political smokescreen for the much more serious allegations against Andy Coulson, the former editor of the NotW, and now an influential man in Government, right-hand man to the Prime Minister.

All of this was taking place against a background where the very foundations of British democracy had been shaken by the expenses scandal, and were arguably being undermined by the concentration of power and influence in one media empire, News International, one that was seeking to extend its grip over news media by the BSkyB taekover.

And who would be the central players in a perjury prosecution against Tommy Sheridan?

News International’s flagship paper, the News of the World, and its former editor, now ConLib Government spinner-in-chief, Andy Coulson.

Where did the public interest lie under these circumstances, and where did the other, shadowy interests lie? In a time of economic stringency, was it wise or prudent to divert substantial police resource to investigating allegations of three-in-a-bed sex? To incur a cost of millions to the public purse for a long-drawn out show trial?

I close with a clip from last night’s BBC documentary on the case – a police interrogation of Gail Sheridan. These interrogation tapes appear to have been freely released to the BBC by the police, with what motive I cannot fathom.

But this excerpt is both damning and shaming in my view. It shows Gail Sheridan, a young mother, devoutly religious, deprived of her rosary beads, trying to act on the advice of her lawyers to exercise her absolute right not to answer questions.

Faced with her quiet determination to remain silent in the intimidating circumstances, after years of intolerable pressure on her and her family, in a bare room, the police interrogator virtually accuses her of having been trained in terror suspect techniques to avoid looking at the interrogator.

He refers to people “just like yourself” who have been held under the Terrorism Act for a period of seven days, “and that is the kind of activity I would expect from them. It is a recognised PIRA, IRA whatever – form of terrorism technique.” He waits, then asks “Who has trained you in the technique?”

And they say this was not a political trial …

Friday, 24 December 2010

Other views on the Sheridan Case–links
QC lambasts Sheridan case as "prostitution of Scots law": Law "lies in shame"

Ian Hamilton QC

“Scotland has lost three very different radical leaders in one year alone. And no, the potential arrival of George Galloway won’t help.”

Tommy's Troubles - Bella Caledonia

Should Sheridan's perjury trial have been prosecuted?



Guardian: The real tragedy of Tommy Sheridan

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Scottish journalism and press standards


I’ve been here before, but it seems I must say it all over again …  If you’re not in for a long haul dissertation, leave now! There’s almost 6,000 words ahead of you …

For the record - I am a blogger, not a journalist. And I am partisan - I have a position, and I have no duty to maintain a balance between competing viewpoints. My blog is opinion, not news reporting - it is my highly personal perspective on the news, from the baseline of being anti-nuclear weaponry and nuclear power, and committed to full Scottish independence of the United Kingdom, with no half-arsing over devolution max.


The terms blog and blogger have long ceased to be limited to their original meaning of weblog and weblogger - a chronicler of personal day-to-day events, and kind of online diary. Blogs now range from that original concept through considered opinion pieces, political platforms for politicians and parties, alternative outlets for journalists to extremist rants. I exclude from the term blog those sites that are essentially online newspapers, alternative to the printed media, although some of the more notable ones seem to be in a state of confusion about exactly what they are trying to do. (I am far from immune to that confusion.)

Some, I think, entertain the dream of becoming the Scottish Huffington Post - an admirable target, providing it is not driven by the less admirable objective of being bought out and muzzled for a vast sum by one of the media groups to which they originally offered an alternative, and truer voice.

As I observed in a tweet last night, part of the problem is that some bloggers think they are journalists, and some journalists behave as if they are bloggers. The gulf between a professional journalist and a blogger is very wide indeed, roughly the difference between an enthusiastic and modestly-talented amateur musician and a professional musician - a gap of technique, interpretation and artistic sensibility. Additionally, few bloggers generate material from original sources - they venture opinion pieces on material that has been hard won and expertly produced by the professionals. The few that break this pattern are really journalists who simply use a blog as their own medium for publication, and actually break real stories, meticulously fact-checked and verified.

I am not among that elite group, although I would hope that I am comparable to at least some journalists who offer only opinion pieces, and bluntly, I feel superior to many of them - in research, supporting arguments, literacy and style. But readers of my blog have the final verdict if that judgement is deluded vanity or an accurate self assessment.


A look back …

We know who spoke the following words -

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country.”

The man who famously uttered them was John F. Kennedy, the charismatic 35th President of the United Stares of America, in his inaugural speech. But who wrote these words?

The same man who wrote these words -

Kennedy was the first great fraud of the post-modern era. He was the surprised, and grateful object of a mass delusion - he came from a state where electing Irish politicians by fraud was an art form.  His father was a bandit and a profiteer. JFK never won a majority in a national election; it seems likely that the election of 1960 was stolen for him by the Daley machine in Chicago.”

The author of both pieces was Ted Sorenson - speechwriter to Kennedy. The second quote, written many years later, was not the result of the discovery of Kennedy’s feet of clay - Sorenson knew all that when he wrote the immortal first words for Kennedy. He wrote them because that was his job.

Sorenson was not a journalist, he was a lawyer. But many journalists have occupied roles as speechwriters for politicians, and when they accepted that role, they ceased to become journalists, and were freed from the ethical and professional constraints that this vital and noble profession is supposed to abide by. They became ghost writers.

It might be supposed that there would be internationally accepted rules or principles under which journalists operate, but no universal rules or principles exist - opinions, theories and practices vary widely. One would expect governments to have very different views from practising journalists and media proprietors, and especially from public service broadcasters, e.g. the BBC, about what constitutes responsible reporting and comment. But even among those who are completely committed to a free press and media, there are fundamental differences.

The debate is as old as the spoken word, never mind the printed word and modern visual and electronic media, but we may trace the main divide back to America in the 1920s when modern journalism as we know it was born. and some of the conflicting ideas of that hectic decade still resonate today.

The cinema, especially from the advent of sound, was fascinated by the press and the profession of journalism. The adaptation of Ben Hecht’s The Front Page into a movie created a masterpiece of cinema, His Girl Friday(1940).

(There was an earlier verson in 1931 called The Front Page . The remake with Jack Lemmon was also closer to the original story, and was a fine film, because of the superb Lemmon in the Hildy Johnson role, but it never approached the status of the 1940 film.)

Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop in 1938, two years earlier, said just about everything there is to say to this day about being a foreign correspondent and the demands of newspapers on their journalists.

There have been many books and films since, but I would call attention to only one - All the President’s Men (1976) about the breaking of the Watergate story.

If we watch these films, and read the seminal 1920s debates between John Dewey and Walter Lippman, the main issues are all there, and their relevance remains even in the digital age.

On reflection, I will add one almost forgotten film, the 1951 film Ace in the Hole, with Kirk Douglas, as an horrific example of what a cynical journalist  can do with a human interest story involving an underground rescue.

For a modern take on the ethical basis of journalism, try The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I recommend the book to anyone interested in expanding their understanding of this vital topic.

They initially formulated nine principles for journalism, and later added a tenth; here they are -

1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.

2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.

3. Its essence is discipline of verification.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.  

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7. It must strive to make the news significant, interesting, and relevant.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

10. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Now I can imagine some of the formidable editors of Fleet Street, who were often foul-mouthed, and legendary Scots, often Glaswegians, saying 

Fuck all that crap! The only question is - will the story sell newspapers?”

Lest you be tempted to sympathise with the sentiment, if not the mode of its expression, let me remind you that over the last couple of years we have seen a major story break - except in the newspapers owned by the main proprietors in the scandal, News International - that involved the Royal Family, the Metropolitan Police, the spin doctor and close friend of the Prime Minister, and a legion of celebrities, sportsmen and women, politicians and sundry gandy dancers and railroad men, a still -unfolding tale that threatens the very foundations of a free press, our democracy and law and order - The News of the World/Andy Coulson phone hacking story.

We have seen a widely-respected politician, Vince Cable, become the victim of entrapment by journalists posing as constituents at his constituency surgery, leading him into unguarded remarks, resulting in his being removed from the decision process over whether or not to approve a takeover that would result in an even greater extension of the reach of News International, the very press empire under criminal investigation over phone hacking.

And we must also consider the complex ethical and moral questions over journalism, in its widest sense, that yielded great benefits to UK democracy - the expenses scandal exposure by The Telegraph - and the global benefits, disputed by many, of Wikileaks, which may have been seen to pull the veil away from the cynical foreign policies and realpolitik of the US and UK governments. Some- including me - argue that Wikileaks was a key catalyst for the great freedom movements now convulsing the Middle East dictatorships, although where they will lead is an open question.


I do not pretend that what I have to say here is a comprehensive analysis of every aspect of journalistic practices and ethics - it represents the things that seem important and relevant to me in the context of recent events and Scottish political journalism in particular.

Journalists are not saints - they have never claimed to be saints, they are rarely presented as being the most ethical of beings, and yet their place in our society and our democracy is a fundamental one. We must expect and demand a lot from them, but in return, we must understand the pressures they are under, in a beleagured profession that is undergoing revolutionary and often unpredictable change, and we must support them in whatever way we can to live up to the highest ideals of their profession.

I should also make it clear that I include, under the description journalist, the editors, who, if they are not journalists, have no right to exercise authority over those who actually gather the news, write the reports and venture the opinions. The managerial, legal and financial persons in the media must confine themselves to their areas of special responsibility, but if they are allowed to determine news content then journalism goes out of the window.

The best proprietors have always understood and supported this separation of powers - the worst, from the Hearst Organisation through to the Murdoch Empire have either ignored or distorted and perverted it.

This bears on journalists in two ways -

The salaried staff journalist in a contract of employment (if there are any left!) has little choice but to accept the editorial decision. It might be hoped that where editorial judgements fundamentally and repeatedly breach the principles of journalism that the principled professional would either appeal or offer his or her resignation, or perhaps more likely, quietly prepare an exit path to pastures new, but such decisions, especially for someone with a family, are very difficult to make.

The freelance can either refuse to amend the copy or accept the modification and re-submit. If they refuse to make the changes, they can try to sell their work elsewhere. Nonetheless, since many freelance have extended relationships with the media outlet, even this can be difficult.

The nature of the change required will also determine the response. Professionals generally accept that they do not have a monopoly of wisdom, or a God-given right to have all their work accepted unexpurgated. They may well accept the exclusion of a passage or topic, provided what remains has integrity. One would hope that they would never agree to an inclusion of an element, under their by-line, that they fundamentally disagree with - the “You will write this …” approach.

Let’s start with what a journalist decides - or is instructed - to write about. A freelance may have the relative luxury of deciding what to write about, but within a frame of reference, e.g. politics, Scottish politics, arts, etc. that may be determined by the journalist’s expertise and to some degree by the publication he aims at. Once a freelance might simply have made cold submissions to a various publications, operating as a totally free agent: these days, the freelance might well have a continuous relationship with one publication, and be significantly constrained by the terms of that relationship without actually being in a contract of employment. The control exerted by the publication is a commercial one rather than a contractual one. As a freelance management consultant and trainer, I had such relationship with a number of major clients.

(Since I am not part of the industry, I can only speculate about the nature of such arrangements, and I do not know the exact nature of them for any journalist I refer to in this piece.)

The salaried journalist, on the other hand must be subject to significant direction and constraints on the subject matter chosen, and  the way in which the story is treated, and by definition will have less freedom of choice, being left, as observed above, with only the resignation option on a real crisis of journalistic standards.


Iain Macwhirter, a Scottish journalist for whom I have unqualified admiration, believing him to be one of the very few totally objective voices in the Scottish - and UK - press and media, must have a considerable degree of freedom in what he writes about, otherwise he would never be allowed to say what he does in the unionist-dominated, highly-biased media that forms the bulk of his market. (I have never met Iain Macwhirter, and have no personal connection with him of any kind.)

My belief is that he has that freedom because of the integrity of his journalism, his highly-honed professional skills, the absolute clarity of his style, and because of the access - born out of respect for his objectivity - that he has in political circles. I firmly believe that Iain Macwhirter would never allow anything to appear in print under his name that he did not firmly subscribe to, and that he would reject any attempt to shape or distort his copy.

That does not mean however that he is always able to
say all that he might want to say.
He has to make a living, and, short of retreating into the blogosphere and shouting indignantly from such a marginal position as some have done, he must accept the editorial constraints of his market.

Another example is Ian Bell, also a Herald columnist, for whom I have a slightly qualified admiration. I believe that he speaks the truth, and always the truth as he sees it, and would reject constraints on his capacity to do that. But his core philosophy could be describe as socialist/internationalist - although he may well indignantly reject such a label - and as such, fits reasonably well with the Herald’s support for the Labour Party and the Union.

Ian Bell’s style is always vigorous, with opinions strongly expressed, albeit at times slightly chaotic and not too accessible. My perception is that the Herald nevertheless manages to keep him within their frame of reference by presenting his pieces as opinion pieces in juxtaposition with the highly slanted ‘news’ pieces that increasingly comprise a depressingly large part of their reporting, thus blunting the impact of his always trenchant views and comments.

But he is undoubtedly a significant Scottish voice, and one that I would miss if it were absent. I hope it never is.

Many of the other notable Scottish journalists are firmly, to my eye, within the category of completely committed to a highly specific and usually unionist viewpoint, which happily - for them - coincides with the overt political agenda of the newspapers that give them their living. They are often described as Scottish editors, or Scottish correspondents when they work for newspapers that have a UK reach with a Scottish edition. A more accurate description would be Scottish Unionist editors or correspondents, since their reporting on Scottish political affairs is almost totally slanted to a unionist viewpoint. Much of their output is either a veiled or direct attack on the Nationalist Government, on the SNP and on nationalist aspirations and values.

Perhaps I can illustrate their approach by saying that if there existed a Scottish national newspaper (print medium) wholly committed to the nationalist cause, and I became their Scottish editor or correspondent, with my present blog output, style and agenda unchanged, I would be their equivalent. What I would not be is a journalist, in any true sense of the word, and neither are they.

Put bluntly, they have taken the shilling, and their journalistic values have flown out of the window. They are the equivalent of political spin doctors.

But there are exceptions to this - more than one - but I will name only one, Angus Macleod of The Times. In spite of being a part of News International and the Murdoch empire, I have always found him to conform to the highest standards of objective, professional journalism. Exactly how he is able to achieve this objectivity within the clammy grasp of News International I am at a loss to explain.

Which brings me to another towering media figure, also a Scot, Andrew Ferguson Neil, currently a hugely influential political commentator, host and presenter on the BBC, formerly a high-powered newspaper editor within the Murdoch Organisation (The Sunday Times, Sky, etc.) and a noted Thatcherite. He left News International after an acrimonious fall out with Murdoch, then jumping into the fire from the frying pan, with the Barclay Brothers.

Andrew Neil arouses strong opinions. I cordially detested him during the Thatcher/Sunday Times years, and many still do, as my postbag and email testify. But I have now come to a grudging respect for him in his new BBC roles, because I believe his values as a journalist now come first, whatever his personal politics views may be. He occupies a unique position in BBC and national journalism, standing head and shoulders above the likes of Paxman and Andrew Marr, with a reputation and personality that puts him on more than equal terms with Government ministers, Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition.

His critics - and they are legion - react furiously to his assertive and forensic questioning of their favoured party personalities, ignoring the fact that he is equally ferocious with all the others. And although he is inextricably a part of the incestuous London/Westminster media village, he occasionally remembers that he is a Scot, and when he chooses to do so, displays an understanding of Scottish politics that is almost totally absent in other metropolitan BBC pundits. In spite of myself, I like and respect him, and believe that he makes a vital contribution to our democracy.


Let me start with the principle of confidentiality of sources and the off-the-record practice in interviewing and reporting.

A journalist must get the story - get the facts. This is done against the reality that those who have the facts often have a vested interest in not releasing them, whether they are politicians, celebrities, civil servants, doctors criminals or private individuals. The British legal system is geared up to protect the powerful, not the weak. Our libel laws, and the cost of litigation and defence in relation to libel actions, are a standing disgrace, allowing the rich and powerful to intimidate, silence and financially destroy those who presume to question their actions. Even worse, this is not confined to British citizens and residents - the libel laws can be used by any criminal, despot, fraudster or powerful individual anywhere in the world against a British citizen.

But private individuals without substantial financial resources have little defence available to them. This presents the journalist in pursuit of a story with two  ethical and professional standards dilemmas, assuming they have any, or are allowed to have them by their employer, the media outlet. The same problems are faced by the editor - also a journalist - who briefs and controls the person in the field.

The main dilemma is how - without breaking the law or breaching ethical standards - to get the truth from some one who knows it, might wish to give it, but may be inhibited from giving it by professional, party, policy or contractual constraints - for example a politician, a public servant or a manager in private industry - or even by fear of the personal consequences of speaking out.  This inhibition manifests itself in a number of ways.

(The second dilemma is whether they go after easy prey - those whom they believe can’t defend themselves, for example, a Glasgow grandmother trying desperately get a fair price for her home, and the stress and upheaval caused by a compulsory purchase order. It doesn’t seem to have been a real dilemma for the Glasgow Press, however.)

Back to the prime dilemma -

Public servants - and increasingly employees of private organisations - are normally bound by some sort of embargo on making statement contrary to organisational policy, and by a requirement to protect confidential information. The constraints on doing this may range from a code of conduct, through contractual requirements, to signing the official secrets act, with criminal penalties for breaching the constraint. The ethical constraints placed on professionals such as lawyers and doctors are, of course, an important category here.

(Whether the law should always observe religious constraints in this context is highly debatable, for example the confidentiality of the confessional exercised by Roman Catholic priests when criminal behaviour is concerned.)

It is hard to see how public and commercial life could function normally without some such constraints, although the nature of them and the subject matter to which they are applied may reasonably be open to question and debate.

Freedom of information legislation has gone someway to redress the imbalance (see below on the expenses scandal) created by the powerful protecting themselves against revelation of their mistakes, hypocrisy and in some cases, negligent or criminal behaviour: the limited protection afforded to ‘whistle blowers’ is also in this category.

The accepted convention, elevated to an ethical principle by some editors and journalists, is the on or off-the- record assurance offered by the journalist to the person being interviewed or questioned. In broadcasting, this is often given practical application by the on or off- microphone action.


In dealing with law-abiding citizens, the justification for on and off-the-record promises is that someone constrained by contract or professional standards may be willing to give information for the greater good, providing that it is not attributable. There is a public position and a private one.

The purists demand complete openness in everything, an ideal that I believe is unachievable in practice. It is not reasonable, for example, to expect an employee to risk losing their job and maybe career because they know that their employer is not operating to the highest standards. And realistically, even though there are a few highly principled individuals who are prepared to do just that, the majority are more pragmatic. To get at the truth, we must protect the open, brave whistle-blower, but we must also utilise the concerned, but cautious individual as well.

The negative aspects of the off-the-record briefing or information release are many, however. An off-the-record, unattributable comment is weaker and less convincing than an on-the-record statement, and an unscrupulous - or lazy - reporter can simply invent them to give spurious currency to gossip, or worse, to a lie.

If Iain Macwhirter or Angus Macleod report an off-the-record, anonymous quote, I believe them implicitly. Coming from some others I won’t name, I take it with a pinch of salt or dismiss it.

Off-the-record comments can also be used by spin doctors to present a completely misleading version of events to, say, parliamentary lobby correspondents, who are in fact being expertly manipulated. It would be an interesting experiment if lobby correspondents got together and refused to accept unattributable quotes for an extended period from the government. I suspect that No. 10 would be thrown into a state of utter panic.

There is also the practical problem that if there is only one spokesperson on an issue, then an off-the-record quote will instantly be attributed, and might as well be on the record.

Some politicians - sans policies, sans principles, sans values, sans cojones, sans everything - are more or less permanently off the record. Consequentially, no one gives a **** what they say …

But the off-the-record principle is nonetheless a vital tool in the reporter’s repertoire, and used judiciously and ethically, vital to good journalism and to public information.

How can the off-the-record principle be abused by journalists?

Any journalist who abuses the off-the-record or unattributable staement principle risks his or her professional credibility, and their own effectiveness. For an unscrupulous editor or proprietor, this matters little if the journalist in question is junior and expendable, and there is a constant supply of fodder for this in the shape of those desperate to gain entry to, and cut their teeth in a cut-throat industry.

In this approach, the person being interviewed is not a citizen or professional with rights and human   dignity, but the mark - a gullible target in a con game.

In a face-to-face or telephone interview, the journalist uses the equivalent of the open mike scam. In broadcast interviews from a studio or public venue - and in one notable instance in a Prime Minister’s car speeding away from a pensioner -  inadvertently leaving the microphone on can lead to the capture of unguarded remarks. Of course, the mike can also be left on deliberately.

No one, however exalted, is immune from this risk, not even US Presidents, but as someone recently observed, any grown-up politician who is not aware of the open mike danger should really find another line of work. Such people are regularly surprised when Christmas comes on December 25th …

In the face-to-face or telephone interview, this is almost always deliberate and planned, and rarely results from a misunderstanding, although that is the defence used by the unscrupulous journalist when found out. The normal strategy is to indicate that the interview will be conducted both on and off the record, then deliberately blur the line between the two, confusing the mark. Alternatively, the tacit assumption - never signalled in advance - is made that the subject is on the the record. If the interviewee queries the status at any point, the line is again blurred, or in extreme cases, the journalist simply lies.

Now it must be said, in fairness, that some interviews start out with a straightforward agenda and no Machiavellian intent, but then develop in unexpected ways. In such case, the journalist may give silent thanks to whatever God they worship for having delivered a potentially big story into their lap.

But it is exactly at this point that the ethical journalist takes rapid stock of what is, and what is not admissible.

(Again, I recommend careful viewing of key scenes in the 1976 film All the President’s Men to understand this process in the best American newspapers.)


There is a view that public figures, especially those who have been democratically elected, must display an absolute consistency between their private and public positions on any issues of substance. Some also argue that they must also exemplify a private integrity and morality, both sexual and ethical, consistent with their public face.

At the extremes. I agree with this. I don’t want a magistrate who sits in judgement on criminals, but in private is a professional burglar, a modern day Deacon Brodie: I don’t want a Minister of Health who believes in the efficacy of homeopathy and that blood transfusions are sinful: I don’t want a Chancellor of the Exchequer who runs a Ponzi scheme in his spare time: I don’t want a religious leader who secretly covers up the abuse of children and protects the abusers. I would welcome any journalist who, suspecting these things, used all reasonable measures to tempt the offenders into admitting as much. I might even condone some measures that run close to, but not over the ethical edge.

(A prime requirement is that a journalist doesn’t break the law - but if the law is being used the protect the powerful against the interests of the people, and there is a strong, very strong public interest requirement, then very, very reluctantly I would concede that it might be necessary.)

The investigation into the abuse of MPs’ expenses seems to me a model of a major service being rendered to our democracy by the journalist who deserves really the credit for the story, Heather Brooke. An American journalist based in the UK, Heather Brooke used the Freedom of Information Act to painstakingly, over five long, painful years, get to the truth. But if it hadn’t been for the BBC documentary On Expenses, the credit would have been given exclusively the The Telegraph newspaper and its journalists. Indeed, right at this minute, if you search for the originator of the story - and it was her story, by any standards of attribution and equity - you will find it hard to get past The Telegraph’s journalists’ roles, which although undoubtedly making a significant contribution in carrying it, and keeping it running, were essentially Johnnies-come-lately riding on the back of the real, brave and principled journalism of Heather Brooke.

An example of the worst in British journalism is the News International/News of the World scandal over phone hacking, a clear breach of the law, with no public interest involved, other than the wish to sell the Murdoch newspapers. This still-unfolding affair threatened - and still threatens - the very fabric of our democracy, reaching into the Law, the Police, the monarchy, and the government, and the shameful silence of the News International newspapers, and others with something to hide is deeply worrying for the integrity of our society.

The acknowledgement by Rebekah Brookes, one of the most senior executives of the Murdoch organisation in 2003 that the News of the World had paid members of the Metropolitan Police for information, the retirement of the Police Commissioner in charge of the initial investigation to take up a well-paid post as a columnist of News International, the resignation of the man closest to David Cameron, the Prime Minister, a former NotW editor, Andy Coulson, from his post as spin doctor to the Prime Minister (his second resignation - the first was as editor of the NotW after members of the Royal Family had had their phones hacked), his evidence under oath on the phone hacking scandal, the manifest nonsense that it had been “only one rogue reporter” - all of these things should have the British public rising up in rage and horror.

But unless they read the Guardian or the Independent, or watch certain current affairs, programmes, they will know nothing of it. The readers of the Murdoch tabloids have continued in blissful ignorance - either that or they don’t care…


I don’t want to re-hash again all that I have already said in blogs passim, e.g. Herald and Scotsman  about the blatantly biased Scottish Press, with a recent surprising lurch towards objectivity in one of them, The Scotsman.

I have also blogged and tweeted extensively on the appalling treatment meted out to Margaret Jaconelli, a Glasgow grandmother trying to get a fair price for her home from Glasgow City Council before she is evicted. The matter is in its final stages in the legal system, and Margaret has a last found a champion in the formidable and caring person of Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre.

The consistently distorted, slanted  and factually inaccurate version of the Megrahi Affair, and the casual reproduction of the UK government’s desperate attempts to smear the Scottish Government with blatant lies to cover their own shameful hypocrisy and that of the UK Labour Party and their deeply confused Holyrood puppets have been repeatedly - and very recently - covered by me in this blog.

As for the Bill Aitken Affair, well, I have so far confined myself to Twitter on this. I don’t like Bill Aitken, I don’t like his views about rape, I think he was right to resign, and and have a distaste for knee-jerk politics on law and order. But I think the way in which the Herald got this story, the way they leaked the taped transcript to the New Statesman, and the fact that they apparently taped the telephone call without Aitken’s knowledge, the way in which they appeared to have blurred the line between on and off the record comment - all of these aspects give me cause for concern.

 Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

#BillAitken I don't like Tories or Bill Aitken and his views on law and order. But I dislike biased and unprofessional journalism even more.

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@bellacaledonia This is the 'journalism' of the gutter, not real investigative journalism. And they will come for anyone who opposes Labour.

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@bellacaledonia The problem is the set-up, the taping without permission, the leaking to the New Statesman, and the missing 'clarification'.

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@bellacaledonia The media smear is Labour's stock-in-trade, through their compliant media supporters. It's bad for Scottish democracy.

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@bellacaledonia Before May 5th, this will be done again to another opponent of Labour by the Labour media, probably to the SNP. What then?

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@bellacaledonia I don't let my distaste for the man, his politics and his views get in the way of condemning the journalism practices.

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@bellacaledonia No one has suggested that he was misrepresented - you misrepresent me by suggesting it. The question is over how it was done

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@JonnyJobson @CalMerc There is every sign that it was a setup, with a Labour agenda, & that he thought he was on the record for part of it >

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@JonnyJobson He was taped without his knowledge. The tape was 'leaked' to the New Statesman - THE Labour mouthpiece, and published >

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

@JonnyJobson @CalMerc There is no doubt of what he said, or that is was wrong. What is in question is the journalistic practices used

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Tommy Sheridan–a postscript …

The jury deliberated, Tommy and his family waited, their lives on hold. And after what was clearly a stressful and difficult period, they found him guilty. What would I have done if I had been a juror?

Henry Fonda: (juror no. 8 in 12 Angry Men 1957)

“It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we're just gambling on probabilities - we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don't know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that's something that's very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it's SURE. We nine can't understand how you three are still so sure. Maybe you can tell us. “

That still says something fundamental to me about the jury system, whether in America or Scotland.

A barrister (it was in an English courtroom) once asked me what I thought was the commonest criminal offence. I hazarded a guess at common assault, but he shook his head. “It’s probably perjury – people lie their heads off in court every day.”

Perjury is a very serious offence – it strikes at the very heart of equity and justice, and it must be treated with severity when proven. Since both versions of the sordid Sheridan saga can’t be true, somebody is guilty of perjury, perhaps more than one person. So my instincts tell me that, if proven, the penalty must be exacted.

But deeper instincts tell me that the News of the World and the Murdoch organisation, News International set out to destroy a good man by making allegations about his private life. I don’t care a jot whether those allegations are true of false – I have nothing but contempt for the newspaper that made them, and for the media empire of which it is a part.

Tommy Sheridan, in my view, demonstrated a lack of judgement in some of his actions. So did Andy Coulson, the former editor of the NotW, over the telephone tapping scandal. He paid the price of resigning from one well-paid job and moving to another. He is now a trusted adviser to Cameron and the unspeakable ConLib Coalition, who now, with the effective political demise of Vince Cable, seem likely to nod through the BSkyB deal for their old pal, aided by Jeremy – a right old Tory Hunt.

Enormous power, influence and the full weight of the law have been deployed against a Glasgow politician who, if he was guilty of anything, was guilty of trying to help ordinary working Scots and the vulnerable in Scottish society through the medium of a faction-ridden, tiny political party, now irretrievably split, when he could have utilised his charisma and burning conviction to better effect in a mainstream party.

Had I been a juror in Glasgow on Wednesday and Thursday, I would have asked myself two questions – and the jury members must have addressed them -

1. Would justice and equity be served by allowing a pernicious, right-wind media organisation with huge resources, and questionable influence over the government of the UK, to destroy an ordinary Scot who had the temerity – and the nerve – to challenge them?

2. Was there a reasonable doubt? And I would remember Juror No. 8’s words in 12 Angry Men – “But we have a reasonable doubt, and that's something that's very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it's SURE.”

The Sheridan jury, by a majority, declared themselves sure. They saw and heard the full evidence at first hand – I did not. But I still think a great injustice has been done, not by the jury, but by the system – by the UK Establishment and by the News of the World, and to some extent by the Scottish public, who avidly consumed all the lurid details of the trial, but failed to look hard enough at the plight of someone who had worked tirelessly and fearlessly in their interests for many years.

I am not a socialist, and would never have described myself as one, although I was a Labour party supporter for most of my life. I certainly did not support the fringe socialism of the Scottish Socialist Party, but I recognised that something of the heart and soul of the old Labour Party survived within it. When it had a measure of success, I welcomed it, as part of the plurality of Scottish democracy. I recognised the inevitability of its destruction by the doctrinaire factionalism that is inherent is such parties, but I regret that it has torn itself apart over its most charismatic member, Tommy Sheridan. Sheridan must take the blame for some, perhaps most of that outcome, by his initial decision to fight the NotW, whatever else he may or may not have been guilty of.

But he did not deserve this, and neither did his loyal wife, Gail, nor his child, nor his loving and supportive family. I hope the Scottish people recognise that in some way they were complicit in the destruction of one of their own.

Only those whose supported this flawed, but in a certain way noble man throughout can hold their heads high.

I hope the sentence is tempered with mercy, and compassion for his family. Only thus can a tragedy be averted.