PRESS FREEDOM

Edgy relationships – McColl, Heaney, Acosta, Trump and the White House.

Notebook by Bill Heaney

I am no Jim Acosta and Council leader Jonathan McColl is not President Donald Trump.

But I have the same kind of relationship with McColl as White House correspondent Acosta does with Trump.

Tory-propped up McColl has told West Dunbartonshire Council’s media minders not to take my questions.

At least I take it that he has since every time I e-mail them, they slam the proverbial door in my face.

I suppose that’s not quite the same as wrenching the microphone out of my hand as Trump’s minder did to Acosta, but it has the same effect.

Spin doctors rule. Bumbling politicians carry on and hide behind their (hired) hands. Officials don’t have to defend the errors they make. They have declared themselves exempt from that.

Their rule seems to be to never explain, never apologise and crack on regardless of mistakes they make along the way.

Did you realise the Council spend nearly £400,000 a year of taxpayers’ money to tell journalists like me they have no comment to make?

How that makes them look in the eyes of the public is anyone’s guess – and it shouldn’t be.

Because anyone with a modicum of political nous would know that it doesn’t go down well with the electorate.

Paraphrased, “no comment” is almost always taken as meaning “guilty” without as much as a morsel of justification that would amount to an apology or a plea in mitigation.

It would appear that Cllr McColl, the bumbling Nationalist who depends on the Unionists to keep him in power here, does not believe in open and transparent government.  And that Freedom of the Press is anathema to him.

I’m considering taking West Dunbartonshire Council to court for failing to adhere to the custom and practice between journalists and government, which is that officials are even-handed when it comes to dealing with the media.

Politicians can speak or not speak to whomsoever they wish, but if there are official communications and questions stemming from them – and ongoing questions brought about by events – then local authorities are obliged to answer them on the basis that if they have spoken to one journalist then they are obliged to speak to all.

Not answering questions which come to them by e-mail is the 21st century equivalent of slamming down the telephone. It’s ignorant and unreasonable – and possibly even illegal.

What has sparked me into returning to this vexatious matter is the news from the US that Federal Judge Timothy J. Kelly sided with CNN today.

He ordered the White House to reinstate chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass.

The ruling was an initial victory for CNN in its lawsuit against President Trump and several top aides.

The lawsuit alleges that CNN and Acosta’s First and Fifth Amendment rights are being violated by the suspension of Acosta’s press pass.  Judge Kelly granted CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order.

This result means that Acosta will have his access to the White House restored for at least a short period of time.

The judge said while explaining his decision that he believes that CNN and Acosta are likely to prevail in the case overall.

Judge Kelly made his ruling on the basis of CNN and Acosta’s Fifth Amendment claims, saying the White House did not provide Acosta with the due process required to legally revoke his press pass.

West Dunbartonshire Council gave me no notice that I was being banned from asking questions either – although the law in the US is not the same as in Scots law.

In a statement, CNN said: “We are gratified with this result and we look forward to a full resolution in the coming days. Our sincere thanks to all who have supported not just CNN, but a free, strong and independent American press.”

It’s time then that we had a “free, strong and independent” Scottish press, not one that is so poorly financed that it runs away at the first mention of lawyers. News is almost always something someone somewhere does not wish to see printed. All the rest is merely advertising.

CNN has stood four square behind Acosta and asked the court for “permanent relief,” meaning a declaration from the judge that Trump’s revocation of Acosta’s press pass was unconstitutional.

This legal conclusion could protect other reporters from retaliation by the administration.

Perhaps, if asked, a right thinking judge at Dumbarton Sheriff Court might consider that West Dunbartonshire Council is being unreasonable and anti-democratic.

Some might consider it nonsense to compare something happening at the White House with the goings on at the Burgh.

However, the laws of the game of football apply in exactly the same way for a World Cup Final as they do for a team taking part in lowliest leagues of Scottish football.

END

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