Michael Gray on the ‘free press’ and The National’s response
I spent last Thursday re-reading Jimmy Reid’s famous address to the students of Glasgow University, 1972. It’s personal to me. While I was a student there I hoped its message would not die two generations on.
“Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement,” Reid said.
Those insidious pressures remain rampant, including in every political and media organisation I have known. On principles like freedom of speech, to which many pay lip service, those pressures censor and silence.
Last Friday Graham Spiers, Herald sports writer, resigned and Angela Haggerty, Sunday Herald columnist, was sacked following legal threats from Rangers FC. Scotland’s new media, countless journalists, and senior politicians expressed solidarity. The National Union of Journalists called for their reinstatement.
This reaffirms the threat of wealthy corporate interests combined with legal power. The Herald has, ironically, been running a campaign for an overdue reform of defamation law. The media group, which includes this paper, recently stood up to legal threats from Baroness Mone. Yet in the Rangers case it capitulated.
Haggerty – who for disclosure’s sake is a friend and colleague – states that Rangers raised an issue with tweets she sent in support of Spiers. That solidarity, expressed personally online, could lead to losing a job is a direct attack on both trade union principles and free expression.
Is this decision, by editor-in-chief Magnus Llewellin, cowardice? Future legal threats are now emboldened. All Scottish journalists are weaker for it. What if BAE, Halliburton, Ineos, Amazon, Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, or HSBC took the same action regarding other writing? Yet Llewellin has apologised for the “complicated” decision. To direct ire at individuals is to miss the problems with our media and legal systems.
In this case, where would acting with “courage and integrity” lead? High legal costs? Pressure from corporate owners? Losing your job? It’s always easier for others to lecture rather than act on principles – especially when it’s not their job, home and family’s livelihood on the line.
We all face difficult compromises to get by. We don’t always speak out or intervene – especially if it makes us feel vulnerable. That’s the conflict of our human nature, within which Jimmy’s speech pushes us to think of the common good above ourselves. Too often I feel compliant. And I hate myself for it. When the BBC told me not to mention a story on television; when during the referendum I was told what to write and what not to write; when I avoided criticising groups that could threaten me with violence, I’ve complied with my weaker instincts. Am I a coward?
The opposite approach, “taking a stand” even with the noble intent of personal sacrifice, is fraught with potential contradictions. Over one particular controversy, as a student, I was outspoken when it would have been easier to stay silent. The result was damaged friendships, uncomfortable divisions and a feeling that I could have created a more constructive outcome.
Following last week’s sackings, online aggrieved readers called for journalists to strike, resign or support boycotts. With confrontation – etween surviving journalists – we’d be left with scorched earth. Instead we need discussion, cooperation and reform.
How can journalists strengthen their security from legal threats? How can this process be more transparent? How can we support editors? Should Scotland’s papers be removed from corporate ownership?
For a free media, trade union groups, staff teams, editors, owners and legal teams can create proposals to strengthen journalism in Scotland. The toxic atmosphere due to job cuts makes this difficult, if not impossible. Yet even an honest conversation and reforming defamation law would represent victories.
A starting point is to admit that corporate media is in crisis. There isn’t a free press. And there isn’t equality before the law. In the short-term, this is likely to get worse not better. We can’t continue the hypocrisy of claiming we have a free media system to defend.
It is a self-serving mythology. Journalism often lacks freedom and the resources to scrutinise those with real power. That those with heavy wallets can force pressure down, so that protecting stories, journalists and media integrity becomes “complicated”, is a disgrace. What will we, as citizens of a new Scotland, do about it?
We can support this paper and the many good journalists across the industry. We can support many online alternatives. We can support defamation reform, the rights of journalists and freedom of expression in wider society.
Most of all, we can reject the insidious pressures in society that blunt our critical faculties and caution silence in the face of injustice. We can stand by our friends.
Response from The National editor Callum Baird:
Credible legal threats can’t be ignored
I’M HAPPY for Michael to have his say on this issue – in fact, I’ll fight for his right to do so. But in the interest of completeness, I feel it’s only fair – and Michael agrees with me – to offer a response to some of his points from a newspaper editor.
Michael’s right in that there is probably no such thing as a free press. It has to comply not just with the law but also with what readers are prepared to accept as acting in the public good.
Not many people would argue that a newspaper should be able to publish unsubstantiated rumours, for example, that a named person is a paedophile, without being confident it could prove it. The publication of graphic photographs is also regularly criticised by readers as a breach of the right to privacy.
Publication is rarely a black-and-white issue. This case has been portrayed as an act of cowardice, a surrender to commercial pressure. But let’s first of all distinguish between threats from advertisers to withdraw their business and threats of legal action.
In this case there is no evidence of the former and a very real possibility of the latter.
In legal disputes newspapers regularly run apologies if they feel they have made a mistake. Most people would agree they should do so. Journalists are human. The best and the bravest make mistakes. In fact, the braver the journalism the greater the potential for error.
That does not mean you censor journalists’ opinions.
The piece at the heart of this controversy contained both opinion and "fact". If a "fact" is disputed and is regarded as potentially defamatory it is the newspaper’s legal responsibility to prove it to be true. The party which claims to have been defamed – which may be a small group of individuals – has no legal responsibility to prove the statement is not true. The onus is entirely on the newspaper.
You can argue that’s unfair. You can campaign to reform the laws of defamation. But what you can’t do is ignore the law as it currently stands.
The argument that this case puts journalists under more pressure or makes them more vulnerable doesn’t bear scrutiny. This case simply underlines the need for journalists to be able to back up their reports and allegations with evidence. If they can’t, any media outlet which publishes that work will be in trouble. This is no more true this week than it was a month ago.
This newspaper, along with every other, has taken risks to back up its journalism. Like any other media organisation, it will only do so if there is a chance of success.
If there is no chance of success, going to court is the equivalent of pouring huge sums of money down the drain; money that would be better spent on paying journalists’ wages or on funding journalism.
Or perhaps it could go to fighting battles that might lead to changes to bad laws. If nothing else, after a long, difficult week for Scottish journalism, at least we’re talking about it.