John McLellan: Politicians are trying to kill off the free Press

The final edition of the News of the World newspaper rolls off the press at the News International print works in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire.
The final edition of the News of the World newspaper rolls off the press at the News International print works in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire.
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A newspaper is closed, the chief executive and senior staff go on trial, its editor is jailed along with four colleagues, the company pays out around £0.5 billion in civil damages, the government launches an inquiry costing over £5 million which changes the whole system of regulation. But where is the justice?

A newspaper is closed, the chief executive and senior staff go on trial, its editor is jailed along with four colleagues, the company pays out around £0.5bn in civil damages, the Government launches an inquiry costing over £5m which changes the whole system of regulation. But where is the justice?

If you listened to Gerry McCann, Ed Miliband, Evan Harris, and others demanding the political strangulation of what’s left of the free Press this week, you would be forgiven for thinking there have been no consequences of the phone-hacking scandal and it is business as usual for the guttersnipes of the Fourth Estate.

During Wednesday’s Commons debate about amendments to the Data Protection Bill, which would have introduced a punitive costs regime against publishers who refused to sign up to a politically controlled Press regulator and established another Leveson-style inquiry, it was repeatedly claimed there had been no justice for phone-hacking victims and Lord Kerslake’s report into the Manchester Arena bombing was proof the Press pays only lip-service to reform.

No wonder. “The panel was shocked and dismayed by the accounts of the families of their experience with some of the media,” said Kerslake. “To have experienced such intrusive and overbearing behaviour at a time of enormous vulnerability seemed to us to be completely unacceptable.”

READ MORE: May urges MPs to vote down plans that ‘undermine free press’

Crucially, Kerslake observed: “Although families referred to reporters saying that they were from individual newspapers, it is not possible to say for certain that they actually were working for that paper.”

It’s assumed he was referring to UK red-tops, even though the approach taken by British journalists was described as “exceptional” by Greater Manchester Police press officers who blamed problems on international organisations and social media. It’s a well-known ruse for agency reporters to claim they are working for well-known titles. When editing the Evening News, I was warned by a notoriously aggressive London legal firm to get our photographer off the pavement outside JK Rowling’s house when we weren’t there. It was a freelancer using us as cover.

Journalism isn’t a profession, but a trade anyone can join. If you are literate and have a mobile phone you can be a publisher. Set up a Wordpress site, photograph your lunch and you’re a food blogger. Post about your shopping trips and you’re an online fashion guru.

No matter how well bona fide British reporters behave, or how effective the system of self-regulation may be, UK media companies cannot be responsible for the behaviour of individuals, agencies and international operations beyond their control.

READ MORE: Ashley Highfield: Public must defeat Lords’ plan to muzzle the media

Backed in Scotland by all parties except the Scottish Conservatives, the inquiry amendment was not about Press regulation but political crushing of a handful of news groups. Even though First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is on record as saying the SNP does not favour tighter Press regulation, her MPs supported yet another inquiry into Press behaviour, seemingly because it would not affect Scotland. Only a deal to set-up a mini-Leveson in Northern Ireland bought off the DUP and the amendment fell.

But we should be grateful to Edinburgh West MP Christine Jardine for summing up the real motivation behind this campaign. Freedom of the Press was the freedom, she said, “to be held to account, by the law and by the politicians who make the law”.

The Press is already accountable to the law, as Messrs Coulson, Goodman, Thirlbeck, Miskiw and Edmondson, latterly of the News of the Word and HMP Belmarsh, will testify. But to be held to account by the likes of Aitken, Archer, Morley, Devine, Chaytor, Illsley, Taylor and Hanningfield, all exposed by journalists and jailed? Or Mike Watson, who nearly incinerated a hotel full of newspaper people? No thanks, Christine.

Quiet Tuesday at ERI?
I had my own encounter with the Law on Tuesday, but happily only for a catch-up with the East Edinburgh commander at Craigmillar police station. On the way out, a man on foot approached me asking for directions to the Royal Infirmary, in the thin, halting, tone of someone not in the best of health.

Realising it was 2pm when out-patient clinics start and he was a fair walk away, I asked what time he needed to be there and he produced an NHS letter asking him to call to make an appointment.

He not only didn’t know he had to call, he had no access to a phone and from the address it was clear he had walked all the way from the Restalrig area. I rang the number to set up a time for him, but got an answering service telling me it was a bank holiday and the department would be open again ... on Tuesday.

So if anyone from ERI gastroenterology is reading and wondered why the phone was unusually quiet for the day after a holiday, now you know. I gave the poor fellow a lift to the hospital and I hope they were able to help.

Content with bad value
He didn’t look like one of the 95 per cent of residents said to be “loving life in Edinburgh”, according to an effusive City Council announcement the following day.

The annual Edinburgh People survey, based on a sample of over 5,000 interviews found that 95 per cent were satisfied with Edinburgh as a place to live and a remarkable 69 per cent were “content” with the way the council manages the city, up three per cent on last year. It’s remarkable because the report on which the release is based showed that only 40 per cent agree the council provides value for money, a six per cent drop from last year. Could that mean 29 per cent of people are content the council doesn’t give good value?

Guilty until proved innocent
Also remarkable is that my three children put their schooldays high on their satisfaction index, given since Primary One all have endured what Green MSP Andy Wightman might have you believe is the Victorian bullying hell that is George Watson’s College. Wightman now claims 25 families have approached him about their experiences in the last 20 or so years, which is not to say they are not telling the truth as they see it, but the school cannot defend itself when the circumstances are unclear. Like the Kerslake Report, it’s easy to make allegations stick behind a cloak of anonymity and without presenting evidence for scrutiny. Guilty until proved innocent, but you will never know who has charged you or with what.

Former Scotsman editor John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and an Edinburgh Conservative councillor.