The Sunday Herald Story: Q&A with Editor, Richard Walker

The legal issues have been well reported as to why the Sunday Herald yesterday chose to defy a court order – albeit applicable in England rather than in Scotland – preventing the identification of a footballer suspected of being at the centre of a super injunction. Here, in this Q&A with, the paper's editor, Richard Walker, provides an insight into what it has been like behind the scenes.

1. When was the decision taken to run with the story, to what extent was it an easy decision to make, and who was involved in the process?

The decision was taken late on Saturday night – gulp. The idea of using the picture came up probably around 6pm but originally we thought of pixilating it and using that to make the point. The headline would have been something like: 'The whole world knows who this footballer is but we're not allowed to tell you'.

Then it occurred to us that actually we were allowed to identify him because the injunction would not apply in Scotland. After that, it was a matter of making absolutely sure that our interpretation of the legal position was correct and making sure that the wording on the front was as powerful as we could make it and deciding if and where we would print his name in the news magazine itself.

It was probably after 8pm that we were convinced that this was something we could and should do.

It wasn't an easy decision to make. There are always risks in taking a step like this. But I thought we were as protected as we could be. I think the issue is central to press freedom in this country and fundamental to the relationship between new and so-called mainstream media and so was worth taking a stand on.

The fact that we are not sold or distributed in England gave us an unique opportunity to highlight the lunacy of the current situation and I feel that we were right – and possibly almost had a duty – to act on it.

The people involved were mainly myself, the news desk and our legal team, although I did discuss the matter in advance with the editor-in-chief, Jonathan Russell, and managing director, Tim Blott. They were both of the view that it was my call but they were comfortable with any decision I took providing I had gone through the correct process.

We also had to contact our circulation department, to make absolutely sure that no copies were going to England, and our IT people to make sure it would not go on the internet.

2. How necessary was it to plan the story under the cloak of secrecy, including for most of the Sunday Herald editorial floor?

It wasn't planned in advance so there was no strategy of secrecy. I think everyone on duty that night was aware of what we were planning to do while the process was going on. The front page was on the editorial system and so anyone logged on could see it. I think some people thought it was a joke when they first saw it but it was very serious.

3. Are you able to provide a flavour of the atmosphere in the building, including among the team directly involved in the story, the comings and goings of lawyers, editorial conferences, etc?

Actually I'm probably not the best person to answer this because I was caught up in the process of designing the page at the same time as talking to lawyers and various other people. There was only one lawyer in the building but he and I were talking to others on the phone, including Paul McBride.

I was taking some calls in private so I was going off the news desk and into the office. But, as I said, everyone working there that night was aware of what was going on, could see the page taking shape on the screen and knew what was likely to happen.

There was certainly a sense of excitement, although we were obviously concerned to protect ourselves as far as was possible.

We were also determined to make sure that we were properly communicating the issue we were dealing with, which was press freedom rather than sexual adventures. We were trying to highlight the madness of the current situation. A footballer's sexual behaviour isn't really up there in our list of scandals we believe should be exposed so we wanted to be careful to present it properly and in the right context.

4. Did you have a sleepless night on Saturday?

I've no doubts that we are within the law. I have no doubts that the super injunction does not apply in Scotland. I have no doubt that we were right to take the action we did. I've been sleeping like a baby.

5. To what extent did you accurately predict the resulting media coverage of the story?

We obviously knew it would be a story which would run big the following day. We also knew it would provoke a lot of online activity. But I think the scale of the reaction took us all by surprise. We knocked Obama down to the second item on the BBC national news broadcast on Sunday afternoon. Personally, I'm not sure that was the right editorial call but, thankfully, that wasn't my decision to take.

But since our aim was to widen the debate about privacy laws, I guess we have been pretty successful. And certainly a lot of the support we received online and elsewhere has been gratifying. Suggestions that I'll be thrown in prison were rather less enthusiastically received. Friends have already been offering to put files inside cakes. How I laughed!

6. Have you contemplated what life might be like in a prison cell?

It's never been an ambition of mine to end up in prison but I'd guess it would be pretty quiet and I might get some reading done. Not sure the uniform is my look, though.

7. Presumably this story eclipses anything you have ever been involved with before?

Well, we've done some pretty important, and difficult stories before in the Sunday Herald. I'm proud that we did it, but I'm proud of the work we did on MSPs' expenses, Jim Devine, Wendy Alexander, Bill Aitken and, before all those, Stakeknife in Ireland. So I like to think the Sunday Herald takes a pretty ballsy approach to journalism and all those stories required a lot of work and legal advice.

But it's certainly true that nothing we've done has had such a strong reaction from other media and online, particularly from Twitter users, who have been enormously supportive.

8. The Sunday Herald has received huge publicity from the story. It's gone global. Was there a commercial element behind the decision to run it?

I love the cynical argument. It's so …Scottish. I love to sell newspapers. The more the merrier. Almost every decision an editor takes has some commercial aspect. But this was driven by the principle of defending free speech, defending the newspapers' corner in the new media landscape and pointing out that the current interpretation of the law on these matter is just …nuts.

This is the type of journalism the Sunday Herald does. Our actions were absolutely in tune with the established values of the newspaper. Of course, if those values and our journalism bring us more readers I'd be delighted. But that wasn't why we did it.