In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: The ‘wisdom’ of a news blackout

I DON’T know about other readers of allmediascotland, but I would have been reluctant to agree with the news blackout on the most recent Celtic bomb story.

If there was a real and present danger to so many people as has now been revealed then I would have thought the sooner the story got out the better for everyone.

The media on hearing about crimes considered newsworthy should confirm with the police that they have in fact taken place and report them immediately, ensuring that their reports do not breach the sub judice rules. In my opinion, a government’s first duty is to protect its citizens. That quite obviously includes warning them – via the media – when their lives are in danger.

If a postal package bomber is on the loose then it seems only right that the public should be warned to that effect – and the sooner the better – in a statement from the police to the media.

If these explosive devices had been sent to people of no celebrity, attached to organisations perceived by the media to be of little or no newsworthiness, then would a blackout have been sought? I doubt it.

Is it enough nowadays for the police to state simply that their investigations are ongoing to justify a blackout on the reporting of any crime?

And how would the publication of this story have hindered the police in their inquiries or made matters worse than they already were?

This was not, for example, a hostage taking or kidnapping where someone’s life might be endangered by heightened media interest.

Contrary to what happened in this instance, I would have thought publication of this important story would have helped matters since the police were anxious to trace three people seen in a Strathclyde street where one of these packages was posted in a pillar box. The police – eventually, days after the event even – made a very public appeal for these people to come forward.

It appears that not only the media have become dazzled by the headlights of celebrity but the police too are beginning to blink in the insidious glare. Usually so anxious to maintain a high profile on other matters, the police appear to be picking and choosing who they are prepared to talk to the media about depending on their so-called ‘importance’.

There is an increasing perception that more and more people are being treated differently from others and that we are not all equal before the law or dealt with even-handedly when we encounter the police or come to the attention of the written or broadcast media.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was also for four years media adviser to the chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.