March 6, 2019
The last edition of this briefing highlighted some of the key recommendations of the recently published Cairncross Review into the future of journalism. In particular, Cairncross identified the vital contribution of local journalism in holding the machinery of local government to account, suggesting that if necessary, it should be funded from the public purse. An illustration of precisely why this is so important comes from West Dunbartonshire where the Council appears to have blatantly disregarded its duty to be open and transparent in what it does. This is a slippery slope.
The exercise of any kind of true democracy depends almost entirely on information. Citizens cannot hope to make what we like to call ‘informed decisions’ when invited to vote without the availability of at least some knowledge and understanding of what is going on at every level of government.
It used to be considered a truism that the greater the level of available information, the more intelligent and sophisticated would be the choices made by the electorate. Unfortunately, technology and social media have made a nonsense of this idea. Now there is too much information, creating a chaos of fragmented knowledge ghettos within a global political culture subdivided by country. This makes it almost impossible for most people to acquire real and useful political knowledge.
Perhaps more important than ever before is the provision, or indeed capture, of clear and credible information from those in public office, whether elected or appointed. For this we need news media or, to be old fashioned about it, a dedicated band of tenacious individuals who care enough about people having access to the truth. Individuals who understand how easily democracy can wither when it is denied the oxygen, sunshine and water of accountability. Individuals who are willing, in fact personally obligated, to continue the struggle for accountability on behalf of a confused and half-blind population.
Kenneth Roy was one such individual. Bill Heaney is another and his life-long struggle for the truth continues, even in what some refer to as his retirement. Bill is well-known as one of Scotland’s most respected and professional journalists, who has had a long and distinguished career. He has won far more awards than I have space to set out here, but perhaps the grandest sounding is ‘editor emeritus of the Society of Editors’. Bill Heaney stands for integrity in journalism and I’ve never heard that view being challenged.
Unsatisfied with his retirement, Bill established an online newspaper to report on events in and around West Dunbartonshire, where he lives. We all know what a local newspaper looks like and, as Bill was editor of the Lennox Herald for many years, we can accept that he knows what he is doing. However, Bill Heaney has effectively been banned by the political leadership of West Dunbartonshire Council because they do not like him asking questions about their policies and activities. This is particularly the case in relation to cuts and local services and their management of schools in the area.
West Dunbartonshire Council refuses to take Bill’s questions and have rejected his credentials as a life-long member of the National Union of Journalists, by denying him the normal access to elected members and council officials. Instead, they refer him to their one-sided press releases and the sterile statements made by them from time to time.
I’m not going to refer to any political party or to any individual in West Dunbartonshire Council responsible for this situation, and readers can research this information easily enough if they wish. My purpose here is not to make a tribal political point because our little country ought to have had enough of that by now. And, I have always been aware of the fear that some politicians in all parties, hold for openness. I think of our current prime minister for one.
No, I am more concerned with the question of how, in the 21st century, we in Scotland are still dealing with politicians who refuse to accept their obligation to be open and transparent in their management of our resources. Are some of these people really still claiming the right to operate in semi-secrecy by refusing to answer legitimate questions from our press and demanding full control of the information that we require in order to make ‘informed decisions’?
In the United Kingdom we find ourselves in a period of crisis without a clear path to the future and little idea of what it will look like. The union has never seemed more under threat and it may be that Brexit will result in its break-up. Consequently, those who care about the establishment of a new, future Scotland must start to think seriously about what that country will look and feel like. The time for vacuous campaigning is at an end, we must all get serious now.
If the words ‘inclusive, tolerant and civic’ are to mean anything, then respected Scots like Bill Heaney simply cannot be banned from asking questions at any level of our polity. That would add the word ‘authoritarian’ to the expression of the guid conceit that we hold for ourselves. If West Dunbartonshire Council can take themselves more seriously and find a higher level of maturity, I am sure that would be seen as a positive sign for the rest of our country.