Fiona Hyslop's dangerous plan to curb freedom of speech
Mr and Mrs Watson, whose daughter was murdered in a school playground and whose son subsequently committed suicide, are on the brink of success with their campaign to extend the scope of defamation laws to the recently dead.
They have persuaded the Scottish Government of their case and the cabinet secretary with responsibility for the media, Fiona Hyslop (fresh from her starring role in the Creative Scotland fiasco), is now attempting to press its merits on the coalition government in London. Her plan is to have a special clause added to the code of practice for journalists which is being drawn up by those characters of unimpeachable reputation – politicians. The clause would impose stringent conditions on how the press may refer to the dead.
It is an objectionable proposal, not least because it is based on one case and one case alone: a column by the Glasgow journalist Jack McLean which contained a grossly insensitive reference to the dead girl. Where are all the other cases which would justify, in their totality, Ms Hyslop's draconian repression of press freedom? I challenge her to name them, but I won't be holding my breath.
She has expressed surprise and disappointment that the Westminster lot have not at once leapt on her proposal. This gives me a slight hope that the dotty plan may yet be resisted. The day that we start making laws because of something that Jack McLean wrote 20 years ago is the day we stop pretending that there is such a thing as freedom of speech in our dark, secretive little country.
Last week in the Scottish Parliament, Ms Hyslop gave an assurance that there was no intention to prevent comment on, say, Robert Maxwell or Baroness Thatcher – these were the two deceased she named, the first a corrupt megalomaniac who emptied his employees' pension fund before falling overboard; the second a woman recently widely hailed as the greatest prime minister of the post-war era. The association escapes me, but as a journalist I am grateful that Fiona Hyslop will allow me to say whatever I like about either or both. It's big of her.
No, no. All that Ms Hyslop wants is to prevent the press from publishing the details of anyone who has died recently 'where the only public interest in them is in the manner of their death'. It is deeply alarming that this statement goes beyond alleged defamation of the dead; it is potentially much more wide-ranging in its scope. On the face of it, it would prohibit the publication of any comment on the recently deceased, other than those whose fame or notoriety passes the Fiona Hyslop test.
The culture secretary is straying here into grey, dangerous territory. I want her to give me a proper definition of what constitutes a public figure of the sort that will remain fair game for press attention. For example, would Fiona Hyslop allow me to comment on a middle-aged head teacher in the Borders, completely unknown outside her local community, not particularly well-known even within it? I suspect not. I suspect that the suicide of Irene Hogg would be one of those cases 'where the only public interest in them is in the manner of their death' and that any comment on it would be debarred under the code of practice.
You may remember the sad case of Irene Hogg. She failed to return to school after the Easter break and her body was found in the hills near Jedburgh in the spring of 2008. She had been suffering from work-related stress and in particular had been agitated and upset by the process of an inspection of her school. Her brother said she had been 'distraught and almost shell-shocked' by the experience.
In the wake of her death, her employers, Scottish Borders Council, disgracefully refused her family's request to see email correspondence between the council and the head teacher. The family also asked to see the report of the inspection conducted by the Scottish Government. This too was refused. At every turn the family's wishes were thwarted. But there was one course of action still left to them: exposure in the press of the circumstances of Irene's death. This forced the authorities into the public embarrassment of a fatal accident inquiry, where the sheriff ruled that her suicide was 'inextricably linked' to the inspection report.
It would be interesting to know whether there have been any changes in the manner of these inspections since the Hogg case. Are they less oppressive? Do they cause teachers less stress? For the moment, let these questions rest; the fact is that, had it not been for the media coverage of Irene Hogg's state of mind before her death, the issue of school inspections, and the pain they cause to dedicated people, would never have surfaced.
Fiona Hyslop would like to make it more difficult – if not impossible – for the press to comment on such deaths. If she disagrees, let her say so.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review