Council’s cack handed attempt to gag The Democrat

West Dunbartonshire Council leader Jonathan McColl and Bill Heaney, editor of The Dumbarton Democrat.

It is every journalist’s dream to be told that you are banned by the government you cover – no matter at which level – local, national or international.

For a reporter, it is up there with being shot at – provided they miss you, of course.

Well, it’s just happened to me.

West Dunbartonshire Council have decided to gag me or, to be more precise, to try to shut me up.

They are not going to talk to me until I prove that I am a journalist.

And that I have registered with IPSO, the organisation which replaced the Press Council.

This is in order that they will have someone to complain to IF , and I emphasise the if, I write something they don’t like and feel aggrieved about.

It is not because I have written something which they wish to complain about, nothing like that.

The SNP are involved in an ongoing boycott of The Dumbarton Democrat, the digital community newspaper I founded when I withdrew my weekly column from the Lennox Herald.

That happened when the editor received a lawyer’s letter from a person on the periphery of an important story about the sacking of a person supplying a vital service to more than 2,000 people.

When I was the editor of the Lennox Herald, I wore the very rare occasions I received a letter from a solicitor as a badge of honour.

I took it as confirmation that I must be doing something right.

Politicians of all parties and none bumping their gums about the media is nothing new in the world of politics.

News is something after all that someone somewhere does not wish to see printed and all the rest is merely advertising.

A journalist’s role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

People in positions of power, political or official, whose decision affect all our lives on ongoing basis.

Especially people paid from the public purse who seem to think it is their right to hide behind a wall of secrecy when they are asked about matters which have a direct impact on the public they are there to serve.

Like the Bonhill Primary School issue where the head teacher “resigned” after falling out with parents about a number of matters which the Council refused to discuss.

When I sent them an e mail about the allegations that were being made against the head teacher and the director of education, they were annoyed.

I suppose it was at the way the request to comment was put to them which was simply a copy of the e mail sent to me by the person who had told me about the situation.

It was direct and straight to the point but, as I am obliged never to do, it contained no details of who had tipped me off.

A trustworthy journalist never discloses his sources just as an HR team at any organisation worth its salt does not discuss publicly matters which are personal to an employee.

When I came back from holiday this week, I asked the Council to update me on the situation at Bonhill.

I would have accepted a bland response along the lines that the situation was ongoing but that no further comment could be made since the head teacher leaving was part a larger situation at the school.

This was in the hands of the police and the procurator fiscal and could not be discussed because it was sub judice and could not be commented on until after any court case which might result from the police inquiries.

That would be fair enough.

What is not fair is to shoot the messenger, as the Council have done in this instance.

They have started questioning my professional credentials and told me to register with IPSO when whether I am or not registered with this organisation is none of their business.

If they were to register with IPSO, it would cost them money, your money which would come out of the public purse.

If I were to register The Dumbarton Democrat, it would cost me money – my money – and take up a great deal of my time.

Anyway, this is not about money. It is about the freedom of the press to ask questions of public organisations and print the answers.

Provided of course that the details of the story meet the veritas (truth) test and are not defamatory.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, I have written has been defamatory of the councillors or officials in West Dunbartonshire.

What I have written about them may have been critical, extremely critical even, but it never breached the law of the land.

A journalist’s job is to expose the actuality of what is being done in the public’s name with the public’s money.

Politicians and spin doctors are in the highly paid business of covering up those things which do not reflect well on the organisations and the person with whom they work.

When they do that they are often economical with the truth. They are not liars which is what Jonathan McColl, the council leader of all people, called some of his fellow elected members at the last meeting but one of West Dunbartonshire Council.

The Audit Commission of Scotland has just published a report which reflects well on the Council. The truth about that is that it is way out of date and takes no account of the criticism that has been heaped on the council for its recent blunders.

These include the grass cutting saga and the trade union conveners’ money U-turn, the payment of money to officials who were not entitled to and failing to ask for it to be returned.

What the Council said in response to that was that they were pleased that a respected national body had given them a pat on the head. What they didn’t say was that if you took account of recent goings on the report,  compiled by an auditor called Mr Hinds, was a joke.

That the Council reaction was spin doctoring, not at its finest, but spin doctoring just the same.

It may have been true, but it wasn’t accurate. It was written by Ronnie Hinds. It was out of date. In this case, Hindsight was far from 20/20 vision, fake news even. Issued while everyone was heading off on holiday.

And who is Mr Hinds? He is a former local authority chief executive who has been given a lucrative position in Edinburgh to top up his substantial pension.

  • STOP PRESS: This story attracted comments on social media, including these:
    Willie Campbell  said: Interesting that Fife’s retired Chief Executive [Ronnie Hinds] is actually signing off audit reports. I had assumed that the vice-chair of the Accounts Commission would have an oversight role rather being so hands-on.
    William Cochrane said:  I assume they will no longer ask questions posed by the Guardian or Observer either, seeing as neither of those publications have signed up to IPSO?

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