Brian Wilson and the Free Press
Most of the pieces posted on this blog began life as pieces in my ‘Footnotes’ column in the West Highland Free Press. The whole world now knows that that column is no more; and thanks to Brian Wilson, they also know the reason why. Via a phone-call from the Editor, the paper’s owners (its staff) put me on a warning. I had crossed a line, and there must be no repeat. There was little point in writing if I couldn’t say what I thought, and so, with only as much hesitation as was decent, I gave it up.
I saw no reason at the time why either the paper or I should have to explain my disappearance from its pages. At an early stage, however, the Editor came to the view that something would have to be said, and drafted a short news item which expressed appreciation of my services, but also conveyed the impression that I had simply decided the time had come. I pointed out that this was not exactly true, and the item never appeared.
Brian clearly shared the Editor’s view that some explanation had to be given, and the result was the column which led to his being dismissed. This dismissal, in turn, provoked another esteemed columnist, Maggie Cunningham, to decide she could no longer be associated with the paper.
My disappearance might have raised a few eyebrows in Adabrock: Brian’s sacking placed the Free Press in the national spotlight. Then, as if all this weren’t enough, the paper published a statement which raised the astonishment to even higher levels. For Brian, it was deeply offensive; for me, it was profoundly embarrassing.
At the core of the statement lay a flagrant contradiction. The paper said it regretted losing me, but they had no regrets about losing Mr Wilson. This was appallingly dismissive of a man to whom they owed literally everything. Yet his only crime was to express his regret that the paper was losing me: a regret the paper professed to share.
The paper construed his column otherwise, accusing him of ‘putting the boot in’. Few who read what he actually wrote would have gathered that impression. He did not accuse the paper of denying me freedom of speech. He merely said that I ‘considered’ that I was being denied freedom of speech. He also recognised the rights of the owners: every columnist, as he put it, is a guest in the house, and has to abide by its rules. And at the same time he also (with some pride) complimented the paper on being the only one in Britain prepared to print the sort of stuff I was writing.
I am grateful that for twenty-four years it gave me this freedom. But in doing so it merely reflected the culture of courageous forthrightness which Brian had established in the paper from the very beginning. In the language of the statement itself, the Free Press had always ‘pushed the envelope’.
What is now going on behind the scenes at the Free Press is none of my business. All that concerns me is that a great paper has brought shame and confusion on itself by its shabby treatment of its honoured founder.