Council cover-ups and obstruction are a denial of press freedom in 21st century Dunbartonshire

Lord Cullen and Bill Heaney, editor of The Dumbarton Democrat.

By Bill Heaney

Are there no longer any brave journalists around, people who are willing to take on the establishment and assert the public’s right to what is being done in their name?

Or are our newshounds afraid of the men and women in wigs whom the bard Rabbie Burns said “prowl the kennels of justice”?

We all know the old dictum that news is something somebody somewhere does not wish to see printed – and all the rest is merely advertising.

This came to mind over the Christmas holidays when the Lennox Herald reported that a 15-year-old pupil from a West Dunbartonshire secondary school had been reported to the police for allegedly brandishing a lit aerosol spray at a teacher.

The report added that the school in question could not be named “for legal reasons”, which begs the question: “What legal reasons”.

I know of no legal precedent for this. What I do know though is constant ongoing cover-up attempts by councillors and officials, not just in West Dunbartonshire but across the whole country.

I would like to ask West Dunbartonshire Council to provide their reasons for their most recent cover-up and why the public is being prevented from knowing the name of the school.

Scots Law is built on common sense and I would question whether any judge would consider the publication of the school name prejudicial.

Can you imagine what would have been the reaction if the authorities had tried to do this at Dunblane?

I can understand why naming the accused would be contempt of court since there is a law in place regarding the naming of juveniles and to do so would be sub judice.

But not naming the school appears to be taking things too far in a society in which our politicians frequently refer to transparency and open and honest government.

By banning me from asking questions on behalf of the public, West Dunbartonshire Council’s SNP/Tory administration have overstepped the mark.

When I attempted to draw this matter to the attention of the Provost during a break in a meeting I was ushered out of the “chamber” and told this was “inappropriate”.

General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2018It’s time the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, pictured left: the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Ombudsman pulled them into line.

The school aerosol incident is not the first I have been faced with since the entirely independent, locally-owned Dumbarton Democrat came into being.

Indeed, it was only after the Lennox Herald refused to publish a column I had written about a GP having his contract terminated by the new Health and Social Care Partnership that I withdrew my column from that newspaper. Permanently.

My plea to the editor that the Lennox Herald lawyers should reconsider their opinion was turned down, even though I told her that the column was in no way defamatory or inaccurate.

Over the past 55 years in journalism, I have looked always upon a challenge from a lawyer as a badge of honour. The editor’s chair is not for the faint-hearted.

It soon became obvious the Council didn’t understand properly the role of a journalist covering government affairs.

Then came other incidents where I was told I could not write about the fact that a friend of mine had been killed after his car had been in collision with a police vehicle which had been rushing to attend an incident in Glasgow on the day of a royal wedding.

And then there were the circumstances of the resignation of the head teacher at Bonhill Primary School in June last year, which the teacher had herself published on the school’s online notice board.

I published the story anyway and refused to be gagged by the Council’s pettifogging spin doctors and education department officials, who were determined on a cover-up.

Since then I have attended two full council meetings and a meeting of the Health and Social Care Partnership where it is impossible to hear properly what is going on and to see the faces of many of the councillors and officials taking part.

On the last occasion, I was escorted to a seat in the public gallery – there are no facilities there, not even a desk on which to place one’s papers and take notes.

I would have to have been a contortionist to do this since the only place to put the papers was on the floor.

I couldn’t hear the contributions and I could not see who was making them because, amongst other things, there is a modesty screen in the public gallery which blocks the view of much of the council “chamber”.

People I speak with find this unbelievable, along with the fact that the Council have questioned whether I am a bona fide journalist writing for a bona fide publication.

They are also insisting I join IPSO, which is the replacement organisation for the lame duck Press Council which was closed down after the Leveson Inquiry.

This, it has been explained to me, is so that they can complain about what I have written should the need to do so ever arise.

It makes me wonder if there is any similar organisation to which journalists can complain about Councils engaging in cover-ups.

And making unreasonable demands; failing to provide a proper press facility, and undemocratically challenging press freedom.

If you consider this much ado about nothing, then please look hard at the contents of this report which was published at the weekend.

The Press Association reported that Government ministers discussed the need to “close down” the public perception of a cover-up over the Dunblane massacre.

Thomas Hamilton shot and killed 16 primary school pupils and their teacher in the gym hall of Dunblane Primary School on March 13, 1996, before turning the gun on himself.

A public inquiry was held into the massacre, led by Lord Cullen, pictured above, and a campaign led by bereaved parents resulted in a handgun ban.

On the 100-year closure rule applied to police reports on Hamilton, Scottish ministers discussed a wish to shut down views of a cover-up, newly-released Scottish Executive papers from 2003 show.

The 100-year ban covered police reports from 1991, investigating incidents of alleged abuse at a summer camp run by Hamilton.

Speculation emerged that the reports linked the mass murderer with members of the Scottish establishment.

Extracts published during the Cullen inquiry showed a 1991 police report recommended Hamilton should be prosecuted for his activities at the summer camp and have his gun licence revoked, but no further action was taken.

The Cabinet minutes from February 2003 state: “The Lord Advocate said the 100 years’ closure to the police reports on Thomas Hamilton had been applied in order to protect the children concerned and their siblings.

“If the documents were released earlier into the public domain there would be a possibility that individuals who were still alive could be identified.

“The documents had, however, been made available in full to the Dunblane Inquiry.”

They continued: “There was a strong public perception of a cover-up.

“A 100 years’ closure seemed incomprehensibly lengthy to the public… What mattered was to close the story down.”

The papers continued: “Releasing a sanitised form of the report would be more difficult than generally thought and administratively costly.

“Doing so might not be sufficient to satisfy concerns.

“One alternative might be to indicate that the papers had been reviewed by an independent person who could assure the public that they did not contain the kind of references which had been suggested.”

In 2005, then lord advocate Colin Boyd lifted the restriction on some documents closed under the 100-year rule.

What do you think? Do you believe the cover-up was intended “in order to protect the children concerned and their siblings” or to protect the establishment which failed to act on the incidents of alleged abuse at the summer camp run by the murderer, Thomas Hamilton?

Is it not time that West Dunbartonshire Council gave consideration at a public meeting to whether it is correct for them to continue to frustrate the work journalists who are intent on making public decisions that are being taken in their name?

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