by BILL HEANEY
Council cover-ups and secret meetings (or even court sittings) are not acceptable in the 21st century
February 16, 2018 – Weekly newspaper editors used to be plagued by people appearing in court asking to have their name kept out of the paper.
One of the most frequently used excuses was that a relative, usually their grandmother, was seriously ill “and if she sees this in the paper it will kill her”.
My own response was usually to advise them not to tell me anymore, especially not their name or when they would be appearing in court.
And that if they had any real concern for their grandmother, they wouldn’t have broken the law in the first place.
This was because if I knew their name, sought out the case and found the circumstances interesting enough to publish it then it would go straight into the paper.
By telling me about it they would be placing me in the invidious position of having to publish the story lest they went into the street and on to the bus and told everyone that I had agreed to keep their case out of the paper.
The result would have been that a queue would have formed at my office door with similar requests from people who would say that if I had done it for one person then I should do it for all.
There would have been an awful lot of grannies at death’s door that week.
Journalists covering the case and writing the story would have been upset if their work never reached the paper “because the editor knew the accused and agreed to keep it out”.
There would have been no coverage of the courts and justice would seldom if ever be seen to being done in Dumbarton.
I knew of cases where business people had tried to bribe editors to withhold reports of their drink driving cases.
When they were turned down they threatened to withdraw their advertising which they knew was the paper’s lifeblood.
Even politicians were at it.
Held to account: Bill Heaney interviews Tony Blair and the court and council offices in Dumbarton.
There is a notorious example of one threatening to withdraw all their party’s advertising if the paper was not more sympathetic to them in their editorial coverage.
Today, it seems, everyone caught up in controversial circumstances seems to want their name concealed by the media.
Having spent fortunes on publicity making theirs a household name, businesses, individuals and charities even, which depend absolutely on publicity, embark on “crisis PR” to avoid their name being tarnished in the press.
Governments and local authorities, churches and sports organisations are among the worst offenders.
It’s not as if they qualify for the usual “it wisnae me” excuse because in most cases it was them.
They are the ones who brought the scandal down on their own heads. A big boy didn’t do it and run away. It was them, caught bang to rights.
It was these organisations who committed child abuse, who used child prostitutes, who stole the money given by the public to buy food and medicines for the poor people of devastated countries hit by famine and disaster and left desperate people without pensions and eroded their savings in the bank.
It was they who made the decisions to enter into PFI and PPP agreements to change completely the way our schools are built and run and cost us millions while filling the boots of unscrupulous financiers.
It was they who closed hospitals and health centres and rubber-stamped plans for disastrous projects such as the QE2 Hospital in Glasgow, where panels were fitted similar to the ones being blamed for causing the fire at Grenfell Tower in London. It will cost £6 million to right that one mistake.
It was these people who took us into the Iraq War without good reason and it’s them who have brought us to the brink of economic idiocy with(out) their plans for Brexit.
Why should the media enter into a pact with the establishment to cover up these things?
And why do the twisters, the takers, the con men, the fakers go to such lengths to keep us, the public, in the dark about their deficiencies and dirty deeds?
Why do civil servants and council officials and health board managers conveniently forget they are “us” and why do their army of spin doctors go to such lengths to make their reports opaque and almost impossible to read and understand?
Do they think they are being smart?
Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, sitting in the Supreme Court, asked why many of the reports before him read “like alphabet soup”.
With these provocative words, the judge highlighted the serious issue which confronts the court on an ongoing basis.
Why in so many cases are at least one of the parties involved referred to by an initial or initials?
Indeed, so deeply ingrained has this habit of anonymisation become that even when one Supreme Court judge began his judgment by saying that anonymity was unnecessary, the initials were still there.
Why do turnkeys let accused or convicted persons slip out the side door of courts to avoid press photographers?
No one want to hang ’em, birch ’em or boil in them in oil, but we do want to hold them up to public ridicule and infamy for their dirty deeds.
Lord Rodger said: “These are simply examples of what is now a widespread phenomenon. These are not necessarily typical of those going through the court system as a whole, but the general impression is that the practice of referring to parties by initials has increased at all levels in recent years.”
It was a matter for concern, he said, that anonymity orders were made, often by consent of both parties, without the court considering in any detail what is the basis or justification for it.
Some councils make similar mistakes when they want to go into private sessions. And when they willy nilly “redact” names in documents and reports.
They even ask the press to leave while they discuss whether they will allow them to stay or not.
One judge, in a case involving a council, said that when organisations agreed that information should be kept from the public, that was when the most vigilance was required.
The press, even when they are not present when the decision to go into private is taken, should be informed of what has happened.
They should be given the opportunity to apply to have any anonymity orders set aside.
Anonymity is the deadly enemy of credibility.
In courts, which run parallel to councils, the general rule, both in theory and in practice, was that judicial proceedings were held in public.
People’s names would be given in newspaper reports and in the law reports. Journalists would have access to all the relevant papers. It’s the same for employment tribunal hearings.
In an appropriate case, where threats to life or safety are involved, the right of the press to freedom of expression obviously has to yield: a newspaper does not have the right to publish information at the known potential cost of an individual being killed or maimed.
In such a situation the court may make an anonymity order to protect the individual.
I have no problem with the courts doing this, but I believe councils too often opt for anonymity and private sessions for what they call “commercial confidentiality” reasons and we know are simply designed to hide their embarrassment and cover up errors.
It is precisely because of this that we don’t know who the highest or lowest bidder is for important public contracts such as schools and hospitals until they go pear shaped in the way Carillion just has, leaving thousands unemployed and sub-contractors going bust.
How many times have we heard politicians and others say that what is required in government and large organisations such as charities, which receive millions of pounds of public money, is openness and transparency.
The time has come for these guidelines to become commonplace in the 21st century.
For the people in charge of our courts, councils and even government departments to realise we, the general public, have a legal right know what is being done in our name.
Anonymity is no longer an acceptable strategy for public officials, politicians and accused persons to take when they want something covered up and kept away from the press and public.