A burgeoning West of Scotland community news website, run by one of Scotland’s best-known journalists, Bill Heaney, pictured left, is involved in a most almighty stramash with the Scottish National Party. The SNP, at West Dunbartonshire Council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster level, is accused by Heaney of refusing to recognise the legitimacy of The Dumbarton Democrat (www.democratonline.net), a news-providing digital platform, which he founded, owns and edits, and of bidding to put it out of business.
West Dunbartonshire Council leader, Jonathan McColl, whose SNP group control the 22-seat council with 10 seats, says Heaney has been banned from the press benches within the council chamber for ‘failing to follow basic press codes of conduct’. Heaney, an award-winning journalist, who has been in the newspaper business since 1960, claims McColl has been instrumental in having The Dumbarton Democrat banned and boycotted by the SNP in an effort to put it out of business. He resolutely denies any accusations of unprofessional conduct within the council chamber and now watches proceedings from the public gallery when he attends council meetings.
And he claims that now, when he visits the council’s premises, he is always accompanied by a council officer. Although there are a number of other claims and counter-claims, further accusations from both sides, and much heat engendered in this ongoing saga, the Scottish Review seeks to give a balanced report by strictly sticking to the issue of Heaney’s perceived ill-treatment from the council in his journalistic role, and especially from McColl, and whether press freedom is at stake in West Dunbartonshire Council’s chambers.
Heaney, 74, claims the reason McColl gives for his action in having him banned from council meetings is that he (Heaney) had asked Provost William Hendrie, during an interval in a council meeting last year, if the volume of the internal PA system could be turned up and asked if a proper press bench could be made available so that journalists could see, hear and report on what was going at meetings.
Heaney told Scottish Review: ‘My request led to me being surrounded by four council officials, including the chief executive officer, Joyce White, and press officer, Amanda Graham, and escorted from the council chamber. Subsequently The Dumbarton Democrat has been removed from the council’s media list for press releases, and I am no longer invited to cover council events. I am banned, in my journalistic capacity, from the press bench within the council chamber, and I have to watch proceedings from the public gallery.
‘The SNP are upset because I used my column in The Dumbarton Democrat to criticise the layout of the council chamber, which has only recently been refurbished and redesigned at a cost of £16.7m, within the old Burgh Hall. I also wrote that the council headquarters, which has been given an architectural award, is not fit for purpose… How could it be fit for purpose if the press and public cannot see or hear what is happening within the council chamber? That is the whole purpose of a council chamber – to let the public see and hear what is being done in their name and by whom.
‘The council’s move against The Dumbarton Democrat is wholly anti-democratic. There has not been a motion before the council to ban either my website or me as its editor. I have complained to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, about the council’s serious attack on press freedom, but I did not receive a reply. I am totally dismayed by what has happened. The other political parties on West Dunbartonshire Council appear to accept this attempt to shut down legitimate discussion and criticism of the council’s services.’
The remaining parties on the council are: Labour (8), Conservative (2), Community Party (1) and Independent (1).
Heaney had been Weekly Newspaper Journalist of the Year three times at the Scottish Press Awards during his editorship of the Dumbarton-based Lennox Herald weekly. He has also edited a number of other local newspapers and acted as a special adviser on the regional press to former Scottish First Minister, Henry McLeish.
Heaney has sympathised with local businesses and public bodies being affected by the COVID-19 outbreak – offering a free advertising service to all businesses within West Dunbartonshire, Dumbarton, Vale of Leven, Helensburgh and Lomond.
He told Scottish Review: ‘The council has gone out of its way to put The Dumbarton Democrat out of business and insisted we have to become members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which is the body that replaced the Press Council. This would cost a considerable amount of money which I simply cannot afford.
“The fact that I am a life member of the National Union of Journalists and an Editor Emeritus of the Society of Editors cuts no ice with the council. They are determined to see the back of us’.”