The Sunday Times
January 21, 1990
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn has called for press shutdowns to bring irresponsible papers to heel. Grania Forbes reports on the claims of the former solicitor general for Scotland
A FORMER law officer has called for legislation to shut down newspapers that publish false allegations. Sir Nicholas Fairbairn MP, a senior QC and former solicitor general for Scotland, made the call in the wake of rumours involving Court of Session judges in allegations over homosexual conduct.
Fairbairn said parliament should give the Press Council powers to close down a newspaper if it is found guilty of spreading false allegation and rumour.
He said it should also be a criminal offence for papers to print allegations from a third party knowing there was only a grain of truth in the accusations.
He claimed this was what took place when Ross Harper, former president of the Scottish Tories, was obliged to resign following public allegations made about his private life.
In a fierce attack on press standards Fairbairn said: ”We are now in the situation where blackmail can be avoided by newspapers taking the place of the blackmailer.
”Instead of sending a demand for money through the post, all the blackmailer has to do is sell his story to the press. The sleazy press is always the agent and there is no criminal offence.
”If a newspaper was closed down for even a month it would hit it in the pocket for a very long time,” he added.
Fairbairn said he felt his new proposals would be more effective than the privacy bill being called for by John Browne, Tory MP for Winchester, because specific rules were difficult to apply to individual cases.
”Legislation is frequently ineffective, but the power to deprive a person or an institution of its livelihood is always effective because it relies on the concept and principle of common law,” he said.
The Press Council would be the best body to police newspapers because it would have a flexibility which legislation would lack.
”The tribunal and judgment has the opportunity to apply principle as well as exercising equity according to the facts it hears.
”In other words, you give somebody the equitable right to judge on a matter of principle, as in the common law,” he explained.
”If people act contrary to natural justice and contrary to the ethical code, not the journalist but the newspaper should be suspended. This would benefit the interests and the freedom of the press as a whole.”
Fairbairn’s call for action follows the resignation before Christmas of Lord Dervaird, the High Court judge, after rumours of homosexual involvement.
Two other senior judges were also questioned about similar rumours by Lord Hope, the lord president.
All strenuously denied the allegations and Lord Weir issued a statement through his solicitor last Thursday warning that appropriate action would be taken if the rumours were repeated.
Fairbairn said the allegations had not only affected the judges but had besmirched the entire legal profession in the eyes of the public.
”We can’t go on having some minor human frailty being exploited by editors to increase circulation and thereby zonking respected institutions or professions or individuals,” he said.
The Perthshire MP has also called for an urgent meeting this week with Lord Fraser, the lord advocate.
”I would want the lord advocate to advise me, in confidence, what the alleged evidence was.
”I would also want him to advise me that the matter had been investigated and found to have no foundation. The situation will have to be clarified.”
Fairbairn had nothing but sympathy for the victims of the rumours. ”Judges are not in a position to reply. They are isolated. They have no right to speak out,” he said.
”Assuming all the allegations against other judges are untrue, they are powerless to prove their innocence. They remain in the public eye with the case against them not proven.”
Fairbairn said an extraordinary situation had been reached: ”The problem is you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove I have never been to New York but I can prove that I have.
”I can’t prove I have never lied and I can’t prove I have never perpetrated an act of sodomy although it would be thought unlikely.”
This is not the first time Fairbairn has spoken out. Following Harper’s resignation he backed a call for a privacy bill, but now claims the new legislation which he proposes would be more effective.
When the former Tory president resigned, Fairbairn said: ”It is essential that it should become a form of criminal defamation to expose the private deeds of persons if they have absolutely no bearing on their competence or honesty in public life.
”The Press Council should be given the right to prosecute those whose conduct destroys the lives of people whose affairs are strictly private matters, and nothing to do with their status.”
Thanks to Ian Pace (ianpace.wordpress.com) for finding this article.