Some people don’t like the fact that newspapers have named the driver whose collapse at the wheel of a bin lorry lead to the deaths of six pedestrians in Glasgow in December. However what they like or don’t like counts for nothing, so tough.
I was actually very tempted to end this article at the end of the last paragraph, because in my view there is very little more to be said, but in the interests of elucidation I will attempt to expand my case.
It’s dreadfully depressing that free speech increasingly seems to require public defence in our society. January’s Islamist atrocity at the offices of Parisian newspaper Charlie Hebdo seemed to provoke a modicum of soul-searching among the great and the good, but the fact remains no British newspaper or broadcaster was prepared to show us the cartoons of Muhammad that the murderers found so offensive. The hypocrisy of it all oozed back into view as early as the demonstration of resistance the following Sunday. Despite the call for a show of “national unity”, French president François Hollande notably failed to invite the leader of the Front National Marine Le Pen (one of the only politicians on record as defending the right of cartoonists to mock pernicious religions) whilst proudly linking arms instead with such luminaries of freedom as Ahmet Davutoğlu, Prime Minister of Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world. Our own First Minister was proud to announce on her Facebook page “#NousSommesCharlie” but didn’t seem to consider that thanks to her governm ent, had Celtic supporters sung what Charlie had printed, they would have been liable to five year’s porridge in Barlinnie or Saughton.
The pinko press could barely contain its glee a fortnight later when it looked like The Sun had abandoned its regular photographs of topless women on page 3. They rejoiced at the apparent success of a campaign which had among other tactics sought to mobilise student unions to ban the newspaper on university campuses. So much for Voltaire.
Now you might say political comment, satire or even pornography is one thing, but one man’s personal tragedy is quite another, and correspondingly that he should be allowed his privacy. The most obvious reply in the first instance is that this was a far from personal event, six other people died and more were injured. The second point is that driving on the public highway is not a private matter - the clue’s in the name. Driving standards are publicly enforced as a prerequisite of a citizen’s being granted the privilege (not the right) to drive. In this particular case it emerged that the driver had passed his most recent medical only three years ago. As drivers of vehicles over seven and a half tonnes are required to pass such a medical every five years, it proves not only that the driver himself had abided by the rules, but that the driving standards authorities and Glasgow City Council (who are both public bodies who should be held to account by the media) hadn’t dropped the ball either.
However imagine for a moment, this hadn’t been the case. Imagine the driver had been secretly treated for some illness which would have banned him from driving. Imagine he had lied to his doctor about his job, and his employer about his health. How would this criminal negligence have ever come to light unless he had been named? How could a doctor, relative or friend have identified him if his anonymity had been enforced?
However all this is quite beside the point. I can understand the driver may be distraught by his experience and I can understand how he might prefer people not to know what happened to him. The fact is however no-one has a right to peace of mind, and everyone has a right to peaceful freedom of expression. Identifying the driver may well have lead to some public good, either by vindicating him as apparently innocent (as in this case) or by helping bring malfeasance or negligence to light had circumstances been different. However, even had there been no such defence, a newspaper should have felt quite comfortable saying anything it liked for no better reason than it felt like it, and that’s all the defence that’s necessary.
Is it in the public interest for the national press to name an individual who collapses in the course of their work? Probably not, and unless the individual was a ‘public person’ it is questionable whether anyone would be in the least bit interested. Yet, what if the individual collapses whilst in control of a vehicle and in the resulting chaos multiple people are killed and many more injured? Does this alter the circumstances in such a way that makes naming the individual a matter of public interest?
The national press thinks so. Many newspapers have recently published the name of the Glasgow man who, in December, collapsed at the wheel of the bin lorry he was driving. The lorry careered off the road killing six pedestrians and leaving more injured.
In such situations it’s natural to look for fault, to find where the responsibility lies. Where, if anywhere, does it lie in this situation? In addition to publishing the driver’s name it was also revealed that he had passed all of the requisite medical examinations for drivers of heavy goods vehicles. Therefore, the driver was not at fault and his employer, Glasgow City Council, was not at fault either. If there is no fault to be found, no blame to be apportioned, then why name the driver?
The newspapers also report that the driver is receiving counselling in order that he might come to terms with the events of that day. I can imagine the process will have been made harder still in light of him being named.
Those who feel that the press were justified in publishing the driver’s name are likely to argue that it is a matter of upholding the freedom of expression. This, however, is patently not the case. Freedom of expression is of course a conditional right that carries with it a degree of responsibility to others. Whilst it is true that the press should not be limited in their expression for fear of causing offence, it’s not true that their expression should permit them to name individuals who have done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law or the general public.
Take Chris Jefferies, the slightly eccentric teacher suspected of murdering Joanna Yeates five years ago. Jefferies was not guilty of murder, he was not even on trial. Yet the press saw fit to drag him through the mire for want of a story. Jefferies eventually won several substantial sums in defamation suits against the newspapers for what he described as ‘character assassination on a large scale’.
Though the press have not sought to treat the bin lorry driver in the same way, it is remarkable that they seem to have learnt nothing from the Jefferies affair. The press should realise that they have a responsibility to individuals and their families when reporting on sensitive cases such as these. But they haven’t, and probably never will. They fail, even, to appreciate the tremendous hypocrisy in naming the lorry driver without any consultation whilst respecting his neighbours’ right to anonymity in their articles.
In resolving the legal contentions raised by press’s actions, a court would attempt to strike a balance between the individuals right to a private life and the right of the press to freedom of expression – both enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Those who feel that naming the driver is justified on the grounds that is was essentially a public tragedy and not a personal one would do well to remember what the European Court of Human Rights said in the case of Von Hannover v Germany: simply because an event occurs in public it does not mean the events are themselves public. Though the tragic events of last December left many families bereaved and many more shocked, it cannot be held that publicly naming the driver does anything beyond satisfying the curiosity of the general public.
In asking to what end the driver should be named, it must be borne in mind that he is still suffering from the consequences of actions that went beyond his control. If he was at fault in any way then naming him may be justified. But he was not at fault. Our respect for his anonymity should, in itself, show that no one holds him responsible. Freedom of expression is a crucial tenet of our society, but with it goes a responsibility not to infringe on the private lives of those who have done nothing wrong, and to respect their right to stay out of the public eye.