Clearly Arnold is unable to respond to the allegations against him but I have been wondering what he might say if he could. Perhaps first of all that, as the Bible has it, those who live by the sword must die by the sword. Secondly, he would no doubt admit that mistakes were made in this case and that they were in all probability his mistakes. His protégée Jack was not a trained reporter but an ex-teacher and observer of Glasgow life turned columnist and Arnold was aware of the need for careful handling of his copy.
The Leveson inquiry has undoubtedly brought a lot of very unsavoury and distressing behaviour to light and allowed people who have been treated disgracefully to tell their stories and that has to be welcomed.
Arnold would have shared the revulsion at many of the revelations. But I don’t actually think he would have been all that surprised to hear that his name had come up. I have been compiling an anthology of his journalism: ‘Confusion to our Enemies’, published by NWP this September, and Arnold wrote about the fact that he was often called to one court or another.
In the Observer in 2002, he wrote:
Once upon a time, with my old friend the lawyer Alastair Bonnington, I appeared in every court in the land, from a police court to the House of Lords by way of the sheriff court, the High Court and the Court of Session. I do not have a criminal nature: indeed my friends tell me I am tediously law-abiding. There is one blot on my record – a year’s suspension for driving over the limit almost two score years ago – but what brought me before the beaks were those hazards of an editor’s life, defamation, contempt of court and the Official Secrets Act.
Sometimes the proceedings were slightly scary: Robert Maxwell sued me for £500,000 because of something I said on the radio, a sum which deeply impressed my bank manager: the case collapsed at the last minute, to the mortification of the judge, counsel and Pat Chalmers, boss of BBC Scotland, all of whom had been thirsting for battle.
Eventually the case was settled in some bathos, thanks to the good offices of Endell Laird, editor-in-chief of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail. A simple statement in the Herald ended the matter on the eve of the case. There was a certain disappointment from those who thought we would win. Our junior counsel, looking forward to a bit of international publicity, was just about greetin’. Pat had to be consoled with a bottle of champagne.
Another case was absurd: two fellow editors, who had suffered a painful strike in Aberdeen, sued the Glasgow Herald because of a diary paragraph reporting that the NUJ had sponsored two poisonous toads in Edinburgh Zoo, naming them Harry and Dick. I thought they were joking and offered a correction: the creatures in question were frogs, not toads.
The case went to court, causing general hilarity among the lawyers who couldn’t believe their luck – more money and a good laugh, all on the one day. One unintended consequence, I believe, was that the zoo thenceforth abandoned such sponsorship schemes.
Alastair and I used to joke that our unfulfilled ambition was an appearance before the European Court of Justice, a joke which our financial director considered to be in very bad taste.
I also remember Arnold telling me that on a visit to a Yorkshire town, he noticed that the name of the local paper was the Herald. He said he spent a long time looking through the window of the ‘Craven Herald’, perhaps reflecting on the sometimes deeply difficult situations he could have avoided if he had chosen a different path.
A journalist’s work will sometimes bring him or her into areas of dubious legality. This is nothing new. A friend who was a junior member of the Sunday Times insight team in the early 1960s recounts that once when he was with a senior investigative reporter in a government office, this seasoned professional drew an instrument from his pocket which looked like a gun but which was actually a device for opening filing cabinets, clicked it into the office cabinet and withdrew a folder which he passed to my friend. Best not to name either of them in case they end up being hauled before Leveson – their defence would have to rest on the shaky foundations of public interest but journalists in Britain don’t possess any special rights to disregard the laws of the land.
In 1973, in an editorial in the Scotsman Arnold Kemp wrote: ‘The job of the press is not to administer, adjudicate or be responsible; it is to disclose information: no more, no less. This is no petty or unimportant task: it is the very lubricant of our democracy’.
The freedom of the press is just as important today.
Today, anyone looking for a reason for why the often disreputable British press should be excused the tumbrils that some at the Leveson inquiry are preparing for them, could cast their eyes across the channel to France and consider how frighteningly close Dominique Strauss-Kahn got to the presidency of that country. It is hard to believe that he would have lasted long as even a local councillor in Britain.
There is a privacy law in France. It may be interesting to note that it is often flouted by magazines such as Gala and Voici who will then publish a couple of lines noting that they have been fined. Ironically, this law tends only to be flouted by journalists pursuing ‘high-value’ celebrity scandal stories. The fine is regarded as another cost. It tends not to be flouted by journalists going after the powerful.
Jackie Kemp is a freelance journalist who writes mainly about education
and social affairs