The Leveson Enquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics of the media" certainly has all the makings of a surreal soap opera, with its cast of larger than life characters like Rupert Murdoch, all the heroes and villains of Fleet Street, a parade of prime and other ministers, and a motley crew of so-called celebrities! But for all its bizarre subplots and unforeseen twists and turns, even in our wildest imaginings we did not expect that SCoJeC would join the cast!
That happened last week, when First Minister Alex Salmond appeared before the enquiry. He was asked first about a meeting he held with us in November 2009 to discuss "concern ... related to comments posted on newspaper websites by members of the public which you felt were offensive and prejudiced."
The First Minister replied:
"Yes. I had a meeting with the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, we have regular meetings, and at one of the meetings they gave me examples of offensive comments that had been placed on newspaper websites ... which seemed to the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and to me to be anti-Semitic in their nature. ... I wrote to the editor of the Herald, editor of the Scotsman, pointing this out and saying, "Look, the newspaper has to have responsibility to moderate the comments onto the website and it's not acceptable for that to happen." It might not be legal under certain circumstances now, particularly with the new legislation, but certainly not acceptable, whether it's legal or not.
I think the editor of the Herald sent a very forthcoming letter very quickly. The editor of the Scotsman at that time was perhaps a bit less forthcoming, but nonetheless the denouement was considered to be satisfactory by myself and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities. ... if it's of a potentially offensive prejudice or is designed to incite hatred in terms of the legislation, ... it's about responsibility."
Lord Justice Leveson then commented, "There is a room for the exercise of restraint to remove what is offensive, being careful to ensure that freedom of speech is preserved", and the First Minister replied, "Yes, I think that's fair comment, sir. It did obviously depend on the editors of these two newspapers agreeing, which, to be fair, they did."
This exchange related to comments that had been posted on both the Herald and the Scotsman websites, ostensibly commenting on Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza. The posts included:
jews are not fit to breathe our air. They must be attacked wherever you see them; throw rocks at their ugly, hooked-nosed women and mentally ill children, and light up the REAL ovens. ("Binny" in Scotsman, 1 March).
Following the First Minister's intervention, both newspapers introduced systems for monitoring comments posted on their website. The Press Complaints Commission, however, refused to take action on the Kafkaesque grounds that since no editorial discretion had been exercised, they could not adjudicate on the exercise of editorial discretion!
Many MSPs also wrote to the editors to express their disgust, and the Lord Advocate also wrote to remind them of their obligations. Eventually, after a complex police enquiry revealed "Binny" to be Mohammed Sandia of Wembley, he pled guilty to a charge of "publish[ing] written material which was threatening abusive or insulting whereby having regard for all the circumstances racial hatred was likely to be stirred up" under the Public Order Act 1986, aggravated both by religious and racial prejudice.
SCoJeC Director, Ephraim Borowski commented: "While it is disappointing that the media did not see fit to acknowledge the offence caused to the Jewish community, we have welcomed the intervention of the First Minister and Lord Advocate, and indeed of so many MSPs who wrote to express their revulsion, the conviction of at least one of the perpetrators, and the fact that both papers have changed their procedures to prevent any recurrence. We welcome this as evidence of the commitment of successive Scottish administrations to tackling racial and religious hatred in all its forms, and making Scotland a safe and welcoming environment for all its diverse residents."