Some things you just can’t plan. When preparations for the World Association of Newspaper’s congress in Glasgow this weekend were being made over a year ago, no-one expected the 600 international editors and publishers it has attracted to be in the eye of an unprecedented political storm.
We knew it would be an interesting time for journalists to visit, expecting the post-Brexit situation to be emerging and Scotland working out its place within it. But instead we would have the failure of Brexit, an existential crisis for the two main UK parties, a Prime Minister in name only and a leadership campaign in full swing, and legislation for a second independence referendum. As if that wasn’t enough we have a State Visit by President Trump on Monday. As they say these days, who knew?
Three days of media debate and brain-storming will be opened this morning by Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, a consistent supporter of the Scottish Press in the eight years since her appointment. As she took office, the UK’s culture and media minister was Jeremy Hunt, but he moved to health a year later, a post he still held when VisitScotland, the Glasgow Convention Bureau and the Scottish Newspaper Society invited WAN to bring their annual convention to Glasgow, We could not have predicted that a few weeks later Boris Johnson would quit as Foreign Secretary, that Mr Hunt would replace him or that international Press freedom would be at the heart of his agenda. So amidst the Conservative leadership tussle in which he is very much a candidate, Mr Hunt will be in Glasgow today to address the Congress.
His commitment to a free Press will be tested by requests from the association to roll back on measures regarded as problems, particularly the repeal of Section 40 of the 2013 Crime & Courts Act which might be difficult with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats opposed. But with new proposals for controlling online harm and extending the Official Secrets Act still in the early stages of consultation it is possible for him to pledge that news media organisations will be exempted. It’s an official Foreign & Commonwealth Office engagement, so no party politics, but Mr Hunt is expected to tell the congress that, “Democracy and freedom of expression mean nothing unless independent journalists are able to scrutinise the powerful – and discover the stubborn facts – however inconvenient this might sometimes be for politicians on the receiving end.”
There will certainly be no shortage of scrutiny for the candidates in the leadership battle, but as with the Brexit negotiations the question is which of them will be in a position to deliver on any promises they might make now. Mr Hunt’s sincerity in supporting the cause of free expression is not in doubt but he is in no more control of events than anyone else and who knows how long he will have to take his agenda forward.
Maybe he will win the ultimate prize; the Conservative Home website has him as the marginal front-runner to make the final pair for the membership vote, with 29 MPs said to be supporting him against 28 for Boris Johnson and 27 for Michael Gove.
Maybe the Stop Boris campaign will produce a Hunt-Gove run-off and that would be too close to call, but Mr Johnson still looks odds-on to romp a membership ballot unless something goes badly wrong when his campaign gets going. Or that scrutiny throws up something which, even though the Johnson bar is set very high, is unexpected.
Lunatic fringe bigger than we thought
In his speech to the WAN congress, Jeremy Hunt is expected to argue a free Press is essential to preserve civilised debate, to “encourage the open exchange of ideas, and pass informed judgement on our leaders peacefully through the ballot box”. This applies to all levels of politics right down to local politics. Last month a South Lanarkshire councillor’s car was set on fire outside his house and this week police launched an investigation into death threats against two of my colleagues on Edinburgh council. It’s a statement of the obvious that all people should be able to go about their lawful business without fear of physical harm, but the advent of social media has given what used to be known as the “Green Ink Brigade” a direct route into the homes of people they think are doing them harm. All political parties encourage their people to engage with voters on social media, which is fine if you are an MP or MSP with staff to manage the accounts, but councillors have no option but to do it themselves which in turn means the furious don’t need an address, just a few key words in a search engine and they are in.
That anyone can suggest, as several did in posts about the Lanarkshire incident, that elected representatives get what they deserve, shows the lunatic fringe might be bigger than we thought.
Another Tory plot
There have many political crossroads since the 1997 General Election but in recent months it has been more like Spaghetti Junction, but despite increasing bitterness and threats of violence, we are as far away from settling constitutional wrangles by open warfare as we have been since 1745.
But even 274 years on, Jacobite imagery still sets a context for national identity and the National Museum of Scotland’s big summer show Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland opening on June 26 explores the origins of the ideas and how they were used to characterise Scotland around the world. “From the Romantic movement of the 18th and early 19th centuries to Queen Victoria’s highland idyll at Balmoral, Wild and Majestic considers the origins of these ideas,” says the blurb, “expressed through highland and military dress, royal visits, art, literature”.
Sitting at the heart of the Old Town, the array of plaid, brooches, basket-hilted broadswords and all that Brigadoon malarkey is bound to pack in the tourists as the holiday season gets up to full speed and will be the ideal appetiser for Military Tattoo audiences. They too will be part of the display, which attempts to explain the beginnings of Scottish tourism. It’s all Sir Walter Scott’s fault for bedecking everything that moved in tartan for George IV’s 1822 Edinburgh visit, and for mythologising the ‘45 in Waverley. Another Tory plot...