Freedom of Speech at Risk as PM Declares War on the Press; COMMENTARY

Daily Mail (London), March 15, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Freedom of Speech at Risk as PM Declares War on the Press; COMMENTARY


Byline: GERALD WARNER

WAR has been declared by Tony Blair, his Ministers and spin doctors against the Scottish media. There really is no less dramatic way of putting it, without understating the situation.

New Labour is on a war footing and its enemy - in its own paranoid perception - is the Scottish Press.

This confrontation arises from the fact that, within nine months of the opening of the Scottish parliament, Donald Dewar's Executive is in more serious trouble than any other administration in western Europe.

What does Alastair Campbell expect the Scottish media to do in this situation?

Take the two issues which are the chief bones of contention between the government and the media: the Holyrood parliament building and Section 28.

Dewar dreamed up the Holyrood site: chose a controversial Catalan architect; and whipped the scheme through the parliament by a derisory majority of three.

He also told the people that the cost of his folie de grandeur would be, at most, [pounds sterling]40mil-lion to [pounds sterling]50million. While it is still a hole in the ground, without a single foundation laid, the cost has soared to [pounds sterling]230million.

Are Scottish editors and commentators not supposed to take a view on this outrageous abuse of taxpayers' money? Have they no duty to inform their readers and reflect their opinions?

It is Section 28 that has finally provoked outright war between the government and the Press. Tony Blair sounded the charge on his visit to Scotland last week. The attack has since been pressed home by Brian Wilson, Alastair Campbell and other henchmen.

Their grievance, as articulated yesterday by Campbell, is that the debate on Section 28 in the Scottish media has been 'conducted on the basis of dishonest claims that they know to be dishonest'.

That is simply not true. Section 28 was always going to be a contentious issue, but the media did not give it exceptional prominence until opinion polls recorded massive public outrage at the proposal. That was long before Brian Souter had launched his campaign or displayed a single poster. Souter has not influenced public opinion, as Blair and his colleagues falsely claim - he has simply reflected it and given it a voice.

As for 'dishonest claims that they know to be dishonest', what about the Executive's consultation exercise on Section 28?

As recently as his speech in parliament announcing the rephrasing of a clause in the Ethical Standards Bill to replace Section 28, Dewar invoked the 81 per cent support for repeal by respondents to that consultation.

As this newspaper reported on Monday, the original response to the consultation showed only 30 per cent support for the repeal of Section 28; but a last-minute email campaign co-ordinated by the Equality Network, a homosexual pressure group, added 1,560 responses, artificially boosting the rate of support to 81 per cent.

A government which attempts to suppress public opinion by such a subterfuge needs a strong and critical media to monitor it.

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