Shining a Spotlight on Power in the Darkness in Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, April 29th 2016

A few months ago I watched the award-winning film ‘Spotlight’ – the story of the ‘Boston Globe’s’ investigative unit of the same name that examined allegations of Catholic Church sexual abuse.

Although set in Boston in 2001 the film has a linear story – and old-fashioned feel. This is reinforced by its serious subject matter and straightforward approach that helped it win several Oscars this year, including for best film.

I couldn’t help but be moved by the immediate story the film conveyed, and also to think of its relevance to Scotland. Where have been our ‘Spotlights’ ? Who has systematically shone light on abuses of power, and do most of us even care that most power is exercising in the dark – far from scrutiny?

These thoughts returned when I attended The Ferret’s first ever conference in Glasgow last weekend. Set up by Peter Geoghegan, Rob Edwards, Rachel Hamada and Billy Briggs this is Scotland’s first on-line investigative journalist resource. It has already in a few months broken several stories – including Police in Scotland violating secrecy laws with CCTV, and SNP links to a fracking company – and been nominated for UK media awards.

At a sold out conference, mostly populated by twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, there was interest and eagerness to share examples of breaking stories and develop the skills of investigative reporting.  Nicole Kleeman, of Glasgow-based Firecrest Films, described the minutiae, detail and legal constraints of much of their work. She gave examples of making Channel Four ‘Dispatches’ programmes on low pay and working conditions and Lib Dem Lord Rennard’s serial sexual misbehaviour.

Rob Edwards went through the opportunities and obstacles in the Freedom of Information Act, and the ways the system has learned to second guess and block enquiries. One of the most moving parts of the day was filmmakers and activists Siana Bangura and Troy James Aidoo taking about being inspired by the US Black Lives Matter. This motivated them to make a film – ‘1500 and Counting’ – about the number of black deaths in police custody in the UK including the shocking death of Sheku Bayoh in Kirkcaldy, Fife in May 2015 in an altercation with police.

All of this was inspiring and uplifting, if also a little challenging. There was also within the mostly youngish audience a minority feeling of generational grumpiness from older, displaced media voices. Dorothy Grace Elder spoke of ‘Scotland on Sunday’ as once being ‘left-wing’, perhaps stretching the English language to breaking point. ‘The Scotsman’s’ brief Investigative Unit head Nic Outterside accurately remembered that the unit was shut down the moment Andrew Neil became Editor-in-Chief of Scotsman publications.

Moreover, both railed against Andrew Neil’s time at ‘The Scotsman’ in ways which must have bemused most of the audience, and would surely have cheered Andrew Neil. Part of Scotland loves its pantomime villains and it must be reassuring for some to blame the downfall of much of the mainstream media on the acts of one individual who left the scene a decade ago.

It wasn’t Andrew Neil who historically stopped the Scottish press and media from systematically investigating power and elites. It was those who ran Scotland’s press and media who saw themselves as part of those power networks and elites, and then told a selective, even on occasions, deceitful story of their role in Scotland. It is true that the experience of TV and radio has been different from the printed press, but while BBC and STV contributed to a more open, less deferential society, rarely did they ever scrutinise the corridors of power.

Magnus Linklater once proclaimed with certainty and even a sense of pride: ‘It would be very hard to talk about a Scottish establishment’ or ‘clubland’, bizarrely doing this in a book called ‘Anatomy of Scotland’.  Arnold Kemp, as editor of ‘The Herald’ once said to Linklater, then editor of ‘The Scotsman’ that ‘we’re outwith the Scottish establishment – which is exactly how it should be.’ While Kemp (editor of ‘The Herald’ for thirteen years) continually said the journalist’s role was ‘to reveal to the powerless that which the powerful would rather keep secret’ – seemingly oblivious to the paper’s closeness to city and national elites.

Many big issues in Scotland have gone unexamined and unchallenged. The only way some breakout is when they explode into the public domain. This was the recent experience of Glasgow Rangers FC going into liquidation, or the Catholic Church’s acquiescence in decades of sexual abuse. In both of these exceptional individuals stood against the system and groupthink such as Catherine Deveney on Catholic Church abuses, or the bloggers and campaigners such as RangersTaxCase and Phil Mac Giolla Bhain who dared to put their heads above the parapet.

Such people faced ridicule and scorn from established voices saying they were pursuing a vendetta or were getting things out of proportion. On the Catholic Church, Professor John Haldane of St. Andrew’s University and the official Papal Adviser to the Vatican, publically repeatedly dismissed any claims of abuse by the church, including belittling Deveney. With Glasgow Rangers, a whole host of senior football journalists and commentators including James Traynor and Archie MacPherson dismissed what was going on at Rangers. In both cases, none of these people have issued one word of recanting or apologised.

These are two exceptions which broke into the public: a mix of the size of the story, the abuse of power, and the bravery of a single or individual conscience. A much more common picture is silence, evasion and lack of enquiry. Scotland is littered with such stories.

There is Labour’s long rule of the West of Scotland and in particular, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, a tiny amount of which has come out, but which hasn’t touched on the scale of corruption and cronyism. There is the decade of malpractice undertaken by David Murray running Glasgow Rangers FC which, since liquidation, hasn’t been the subject of investigation. There are the wider tales of corporate and financial abuse which the downing of Royal Bank of Scotland under the leadership of Fred Goodwin was only the tip of an iceberg. Finally, after Jimmy Savile where are the probing questions into our child sex abuse scandals in places which were ostensibly meant to care and protect young people – or are we really supposed to belief this just happened in England or under the tutelage of ‘Westmonster’?

These and many more stories remain untold, and it is often outsiders who break the conventions and do the digging and take the principled stand. It wasn’t an accident that the ‘Boston Globe’ ‘Spotlight’ story became possible when the paper appointed a new editor, Marty Baron, who wasn’t part of local networks (and who went on to edit the ‘Washington Post’). Two examples on which Scottish media did nothing and which were broken by UK media were the huge council-property development scandal in Dundee in the 1970s which was investigated by ITV’s ‘World in Action’, and then nearly ten years later, the George Galloway-Dundee Labour clubs financial mismanagement – which Channel Four’s ‘Dispatches’ broke with their first programme. These were, as with many stories, systemic abuses which had become semi-public knowledge, but which the Scottish media wouldn’t touch, aided by the closeness of contacts with local Labour politicians.

There are many other contributory explanations about the absence of stories unveiling power: power of defamation laws, time and resources needed to pursue a story, and financial pressures from outside bodies through threatening to withdraw advertising or access. All of these matter more today, and in a world of a weaker print media, such factors can be decisive in wanting to have a more quiet life. When ‘The Herald’ recently removed Graham Spiers as a columnist, one factor was a local company threatening to withdraw £40,000 in advertising: a not insubstantial amount to cash strapped papers.

Once the mainstream media had the wherewithal resources to scrutinise and examine power, but it did not have the inclination, for it was a part of those elites: corporate, public, legal and administrative. Now that our mainstream media has many less resources and as privileged a place, it does not have the same monies, people or time to undertake such work.

It is important that we understand what has happened and what is still an ongoing process. We have to comprehend what the media did well, what they did selectively, and what they never began to undertake: what in short, they and other guardians of our public life often put so leftfield that they silently silenced and made for years into non-issues.

Every establishment the world over has always told itself and the world it is not an establishment: that they are outsiders, radicals and have never been fully accepted: it is the story Thatcher, Trump, even Nigel Farage and many others have told, and it was one the pillars of the Scottish press used to differentiate themselves from the traditional, conservative establishment, and to believe they were doing something noble and good and making a difference.

In recent years Scotland has undoubtedly lost something distinctive. But it is also true that the change we are witnessing has a positive dimension. That is in the cracks and spaces which are opening up in a more disputatious society, new media voices and players are emerging which offers the possibility of new stories, perspectives and angles on our society.

Scotland’s mainstream media were for decades more than a ‘fourth estate’. They were a pillar of our distinctiveness and autonomy in all its forms: shaped by Scottish culture and characteristics, a mixture of couthy, idiosyncratic, parochial, and at times showcasing our humour and lighter side. But they were also profoundly conservative and unquestioning of many of the aspects of public and private life: nearly always going along with the groupthink of the elites and elders, from Protestant ascendancy, to unionism, labourism and more recently, devolution.

This is the legacy the new media are going to inherit. It is a strange, confused landscape, but one where new initiatives such as ‘The Ferret’ are going to be needed more than ever, and needing our support and encouragement. Scotland needs that ‘anti-authority culture’ of challenge and scrutiny – which Arnold Kemp and others talked about – and it needs to find business models, platforms and cultural attitudes that make us realise that power in the darkness aids systemic abuse on an industrial scale. Scotland needs its ‘Spotlights’ on power as much as Boston or anywhere else in the world.