The importance of a dissenting voice
Friday, November 30, 2018 at 11:44
Simon Clark

As of today smoking is banned in all Scottish prisons.

The policy is controversial because reports - as I explained here and in the Scottish Sun on Wednesday - suggest that an identical ban in prisons in England and Wales has helped fuel violence and the use of illegal drugs among inmates.

With the notable exception of the Sun, however, communicating that message has proved difficult.

Forest’s response to the ban was sent to the Scottish media on Wednesday morning.

Yesterday, at around 5.30pm, we started getting notifications of media reports, none of which included a single comment from Forest or any other critic of the ban.

Instead each report was identical and read like a government press release.

The source was the Press Association (which was the first recipient of our own press release) so I rang the PA to complain.

To be fair, they immediately updated their report - which is how I’m quoted in the Mail Online (Smoking ban to be introduced in Scotland's prisons), the Glasgow Evening Times, the Aberdeen Evening Express and elsewhere - but it was disappointing that I had to chase them.

That wasn’t the end of my work however because at 1.00am this morning BBC News online posted their own story about the ban.

Like the initial PA report it merely regurgitated whatever the government (or Scottish Prison Service) had fed it.

Older readers will know what happened next because I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to do something similar.

I rang the BBC Scotland newsdesk. In Glasgow. At 2.30am.

A reporter from Radio Scotland answered. BBC News online? I’d have to wait to speak to someone because no-one would be there until five or six o’clock.

I went back to bed and fell asleep. When I woke up it was almost eight so I rang again.

This time I got someone on the online newsdesk who wasn’t best pleased with my complaint but agreed (reluctantly) to consider our response if I sent it again.

That was at 07:51.

I also sent a link to the PA report that had appeared on Mail Online with my quote.

Zero response. The report on the BBC website remained unchanged.

At 09.01 I rang again and was told the person I had spoken to an hour or so earlier was in a meeting. So I left a message.

Forty minutes later, almost nine hours after the report was published on the BBC News website, I got this response, via email:

Mr Clark, I have added a quote at the end of the article.

It’s a token quote (see our full response here) but it’s better than nothing and the reason we chase these things is simple.

Failure to do so would allow these influential reports to appear without a single dissenting voice and with no hint of opposition governments in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff will be emboldened to introduce more and more regulations.

To be honest, I’ve never thought that prisoners should have a right to smoke in jail, but there is an argument to be had about the wisdom of banning smoking in prison, especially when reports suggest there are serious unintended consequences.

What really makes me cross though is the increasing tendency of journalists to publish stories that could have been cut and pasted straight from a government or ‘public health’ press release.

I’ve written about this several times because it’s an ongoing issue, but it seems to me that many journalists are little more than copy takers because relatively few can be bothered to make the story their own.

Anyway, this is how BBC's report now reads - Smoking banned in Scottish prisons, with a short comment from me at the end.

Update: Forest is not alone because the comments below the BBC report are largely critical of the ban.

I'm not surprised. Earlier this year Populus conducted a poll for Forest in Scotland and one of the questions concerned the prison smoking ban:

There was support for inmates in Scottish prisons being permitted to smoke, with two thirds (66 per cent) of respondents agreeing that prisoners should be allowed to smoke in designated smoking areas.

On this issue, like many others, public opinion is on our side. It's just not represented in parliament.

See Forest criticises Scottish Government's "constant war on smokers"

Update: I also discussed the Scottish prison smoking ban with Mike Graham on on TalkRADIO at 12.35.

Article originally appeared on Simon Clark (
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