John McLellan: So just where does public interest lie?

Now where was I before I was interrupted . . ? I'm delighted to be back with this regular weekly column in the Evening News, the paper for which I've worked, on and off, since 1993.

Thursday, 15th June 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 15th June 2017, 1:39 pm
Cameron Rose was reported to the Scottish Standards Commission after identifying five council officers involved in the controversies at the Cameron House community centre. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Cameron Rose was reported to the Scottish Standards Commission after identifying five council officers involved in the controversies at the Cameron House community centre. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Since being elected to the city council last month I’ve seen from the other side of the fence that no news source matters more in the City Chambers than the Evening News.

Some things never change; back in the 1990s we were running stories about the outrage across the city at the withdrawal of free bin bags and here we are over 20 years on and people are still dissatisfied with the waste service.

Indeed, one of the councillors whose head we stuck in a bin bag on the front page in 1996 is still a councillor today. Step forward Councillor Ian Perry.

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Edinburgh University is carrying out an investigation of the city's 20mph speed limits

Of course it’s easy for journalists to throw stones and I’ve thrown more than a few in my time (I think Councillor Joanna Mowat has forgiven me) and having pounded the streets of Duddingston & Craigentinny leafleting and canvassing since before Christmas, I certainly have a lot more respect for councillors than I had before. And I’ve spoken to a lot more readers too.

It’s a great privilege to write for the Evening News, just as it’s a great privilege to be elected to serve as a city councillor. But after spending all but 18 months of my professional life as a newspaper man it’s a shock to find that councillors actually have more limitations on what they can say and write than the journalists who cover their activities.

Take for example, my colleague Councillor Cameron Rose, who was reported to the Scottish Standards Commission for identifying five council officers involved in controversies at the Cameron House community centre. Also reported was Jeremy Balfour, now an MSP, because he chaired the meeting at which the names were mentioned.

All Cllr Rose did was name the individuals concerned, but it was enough to trigger an investigation lasting two years and the threat of suspension was only lifted this week when the Standards Commission finally cleared them of breaching the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

Edinburgh University is carrying out an investigation of the city's 20mph speed limits

The allegation was that the officers had been potentially defamed, yet a fair and accurate news report of those facts would have legal protection which would make libel action highly unlikely.

A complaint could be made to the Press regulator, but there would be little chance in similar circumstances of the reporter facing suspension and it would certainly not take two years to reach a conclusion.

Now Mr Balfour has called for the Scottish Government to review the Councillors’ Code of Conduct and he has support from former council leader Donald Anderson, who first raised concerns about Cameron House when approached by the whistleblower at the heart of the controversy.

It is entirely proper that employees should be able to carry out their duties without fear of unfair criticism or harassment and for the standards code to promote respect between councillors and staff, but simply naming individuals should surely not be enough to spark a two-year probe.

In these highly litigious times, the balance is tipped in favour of protection of reputation, both corporately and individually, and as Cameron Rose and Jeremy Balfour discovered that is not always in the public interest.

Funsters driven off the road

I recently had a bit of an argument with the wing mirror of a parked Jag and before that a wee scrape with a Number 10 bus. Neither dunch was at much more than 10mph, so I don’t need a blanket 20mph speed limit to persuade me to avoid driving.

Now Edinburgh University is collaborating with health organisations and the cycling charity Sustrans to survey the new blanket speed reduction’s effects, so don’t be surprised if it concludes the whole thing is wonderful and every city should do it.

But if we all give up cars, what will those drivers who derive satisfaction from creating a snake of traffic as they tootle along wide main roads at 15mph do for fun?

In memory of two remarkable men

Earlier this year the Watsonian Football Club said an indescribably sad farewell to one of its most dedicated servants, Martin Macari, who died of cancer aged just 47.

Teetotal, non-smoking, international touch rugby player Martin remained one of the fittest men in the club and his funeral at St Peter’s in Morningside heard how even though terminally ill, he still challenged a friend to a run round the grounds of the hospice... which was declined to avoid the ignominy of being thrashed by a dying man. Martin left a wife and two young children.

Then in May, ex-Evening News columnist and another dedicated sportsman Sandy Strang also succumbed to cancer, aged 65. Originally a teacher who became a much sought-after speaker, Sandy played cricket up to his 60s and was so fit he was only diagnosed six weeks before his death; “And there was me taking Lemsip for it,” he joked with typical stoicism.

I knew them both well, Martin had been a rugby team-mate and it was my great privilege to have been taught English by Sandy at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow where he rose to be depute rector. Apart from their love of sport, unbreakable courage and astounding humour in the face of death, Martin and Sandy both had another thing in common in that they were both supported to the end by Marie Curie Cancer Care and the weekly fee for this column will go to the charity in memory of two truly remarkable men.

AirHelping themselves

Not many people here will have heard of AirHelp, but thanks to the publication of their airports survey in which Edinburgh was roundly panned, I suspect a lot more do now.

Founded four years ago by a couple of tech entrepreneurs, AirHelp specialises in winning compensation for passengers hit by flight delays and it’s unlikely to be a coincidence the report was released only weeks before the school holidays.

Edinburgh Airport attacked their methodology, but I doubt they care; what matters to them is that AirHelp comes immediately to mind if you’re stewing for hours in a departure lounge.