Anti-censorship group Scottish PEN backs the misuse of media power

Last updated : 27 June 2017 By Mark Dingwall

This evening, in no less a place than the Scottish Parliament, the free speech charity Scottish PEN is holding a campaign meeting arguing for the reform of the law of defamation in Scotland.

Of particular concern to Rangers fans will be the appearance on the panel by Angela Haggerty - a person infamous for her anti-Rangers bias in general and in particular her editorship and promotion of the vile outpourings of the bigot, racist and supporter of terrorism Phil Macgiollabhain.

Haggerty was sacked by the Herald group for backing the columnist Graham Spiers who had alleged that a Rangers director was a bigot.   She would later be reinstated to writing a column in the Sunday Herald.  The editor of the Sunday Herald describing her in a tweet as “a very dear friend of mine.”

 THE FACTS - Let’s firstly examine what the source of the problem was.   Spiers alleged that a Rangers director was a bigot, in a cowardly manner he did not name the director but was content to hold the canard above the director's head - lo and behold, as if by magic, within hours a name was circulating amongst the usual suspects in the Celtic support.    

When Rangers asked the Herald to clarify which director was being referred to, Spiers was unable to substantiate his claim.   His story changed several times under questioning from his editor and the Herald’s chief legal advisor leaving the paper with no option but an apology.  Spiers had no witnesses, no contemporaneous notes, etc, whereas Rangers had rock solid testimony.  Spiers initially agreed to this but later retracted his acceptance and began to play the martyr.

At no time did Rangers or any company associated with the club or any director pressure the Herald by threatening to withdraw advertising - that was simply a lie subsequently put about.

The effects of such an allegation of bigotry in Scotland are extremely serious - to put such allegations into print put the victim’s livelihood and physical safety on the line.

I would say that Spiers misused his celebrity as a journalist and the lack of editorial control exercised over his work at the Herald.

 WHAT ANGELA DID NEXT - Haggerty decided to back Spiers and his actions and in doing so undermined the authority of the Herald’s editor.  That’s not a tenable position for either individual or the paper.  She would claim “apparently under threat of a legal challenge from the club itself, I was fired.”   Here we see the difficultly where politics, prejudice and prejudgement collide - “apparently under threat”?  Was she or wasn’t she?  Did Rangers or didn’t they?

The point she spectacularly misses is this - a newspaper should not be allowed to misuse it’s power to defame an individual.  It published a false allegation and has to retract - and it can’t have employees or freelances over-ruling it’s editors and lawyers simply because they wish something was true.

A company director is likely to have funds of his own or from the company to defend himself - but what happens if the Herald decides to pick on a less well-heeled individual with no such backing?  

The lie could be allowed unless there are likely to be legal consequences.  That would be a gross mis-use of the power of the press.  Haggerty and Spiers are not victims - the individual being falsely accused was.

 SCOTTISH PEN - Scottish PEN then got in on the act issuing, on 26 January 2016, a statement calling on the Herald group to reverse Haggerty’s dismissal alleging that “pressure had been exerted on The Herald by Rangers Football Club.”  In fact, the club was merely seeking to have a lie retracted.

This is where the story darkens and deepens and I would say that it calls into question the links that Scottish PEN may have with individuals and groups - and that these constitute a conflict of interest.  In this case has led it into supporting lies and individuals who have failed to live up to the standards which Scottish PEN regularly demands of others.

Before I go much further I should note that over the last 30 years I have admired much of the work of PEN International.  Likewise much of Scottish PEN’s work is very worthy.  From following their cases in some detail I also have great sympathy for two other participants on tonight’s panel Andy Wightman and Paulo Quadros.  But in this instance they have gotten it spectacularly wrong and allied themselves to lies and mis-use of press power.

In a blog she wrote on 31st January 2016 on the Bella Caledonia site Ms Haggerty reveals that she was “in a meeting with Scottish PEN discussing their campaign for reform of defamation law in Scotland.”

Ms Haggerty works as an editor for the CommonSpace website and in there on 4th August last year it is revealed that  ”newcomer Nick Brady [was joining] the team through a legal work experience placement organised by Scottish PEN.”   CommonSpace has also published several articles by a Scottish PEN employee promoting their work in the last year.

It’s a close relationship - and for an avowedly Nationalist website/organisation like CommonSpace to be hosting articles and interns from a charity like Scottish PEN it’s a little too close - I feel it has clouded their judgement.

This is in someways understandable as a search on the Scottish Charities website - - reveals them not to be an organisation overflowing with resources - in 2016 for instance their income was £48,522 and somewhat over £37,000 of that came from public bodies such as Creative Scotland (£30,760) and Project Commonwealth.  Just under £31,000 went on wage costs - so they do not have huge numbers of staff and hence the ability to properly vet all the circumstances around this incident.

Peculiarly for a charity subscribing to openness many details included in their annual report and accounts (including the names of their Trustees, Honorary Members, Executive Committee Members and Sub-Committee Members) are redacted.

UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS - Whilst in general I wish Scottish PEN well they have in this instance gotten things spectacularly wrong.  Being so close to a website devoted to promoting a particular political and cultural agenda has blinded them to reality and fairness.  I believe that they should consider the totality of that relationship going forward.