Tag Archives: Freedom of Information

Lord Clark On The Mystery Of Victor Grayson

Victor_Grayson

Victor Grayson (picture: Wikipedia/public domain)

It’s now 107 years since Victor Grayson won a spectacular victory in the 1907 Colne Valley by-election, standing as an Independent Labour candidate. But his life and mysterious disappearance continue to fascinate political historians. His biographer, and one of his successors as MP for Colne Valley, David (now Lord) Clark, was the main speaker at an event about Grayson at the University of Huddersfield last night.

Victor Grayson had a reputation as one of the great and most radical public speakers of his time, and the Pankhursts were among those who travelled to Colne Valley to join his campaign. His success was short-lived and his Parliamentary career ended at the next general election in 1910, after, with the help of a series of drunken outbursts on the floor of the Commons chamber, he managed to alienate just about all his fellow MPs, including those from Keir Hardie’s mainstream Labour Party. Grayson re-emerged after the First World War but was not seen again after 1920, amid suggestions he got himself mixed up with a shadowy Whitehall fixer called Maundy Gregory, a man responsible for co-ordinating the sale of honours on behalf of Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

The evening began with an extremely rare screening of a 1985 BBC2 documentary about Grayson, not thought to have been shown publicly since its original broadcast. It included interviews with Grayson’s landlady at the time of his disappearance in 1920, Grayson’s nephew as well as a New Zealand soldier who had served with Grayson during WWI, and claimed to have seen him in Spain some years after his apparent disappearance. A rather younger looking David Clark, who by this time had lost his seat in Colne Valley but been elected in South Shields, also featured prominently.

Having read and written a bit about Grayson during my time reporting politics in Saddleworth, in particular the 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election (Saddleworth and ‘Red Delph’ was part of the Colne Valley constituency in Grayson’s day, indeed it was up until 1983), I’d always assumed that the various sightings of him after his disappearance were probably false, and that he’d been bumped off on Gregory’s orders. A common suggestion is that Grayson knew too much about the honours scandal, and may have threatened to reveal it.

However, Lord Clark seemed fairly convinced, both in the original documentary and again in his remarks last night, that Grayson went to ground and was paid off, and continued living in secret under an assumed name. That would certainly explain the various sightings of Grayson recorded in the 1920s and 30s. But a stronger piece of evidence is the fact that somebody retrieved Grayson’s WWI medals from the New Zealand authorities in London in August 1939. If not Grayson himself, this would have to have been a direct and close relative. The only one alive at that time was his daughter, who, according to Clark, had told him she knew nothing about the medals. It strikes me the sightings can be easily explained away, but that can’t.

Lord Clark speaks about Victor Grayson last night.

Lord Clark speaks about Victor Grayson last night.

Lord Clark also revealed that files about Grayson and some of his political contemporaries held by the Home Office still haven’t been released. When asked by event organiser and University of Huddersfield lecturer Stephen Dorril whether his experiences investigating Grayson’s life had informed his later work on Freedom of Information during the first year of Tony Blair’s government, Lord Clark said it had up to a point. But he then added he was concerned it was the media rather than the general public which tended to use FOI today, which had not necessarily been his original intention.

After Lord Clark’s talk, University of Huddersfield history lecturer Keith Laybourn set Grayson’s life in the context of the Labour movement of the early 1900s, then both men took questions from the good-sized crowd of about 80 people. Thanks to all for a very enjoyable evening.

The Strange Case Of Willie MacRae

Willie MacRae's crashed car. (picture: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

Willie MacRae’s crashed car. (pictures: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

The death of Willie MacRae is one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries. A prominent lawyer and SNP political figure, he was found dying from severe head injuries in his crashed car at the side of a road in the Highlands in 1985. Later examinations revealed he’d actually been shot. The official verdict of suicide has often been questioned.

I was only vaguely aware of the story until I read James Robertson’s novel And The Land Lay Still, which features the MacRae death as a key incident as part of its epic sweep through the events of post-war Scotland. He’s not the only author to have been inspired by the mysterious case: Ian Rankin writes here about how he studied it as part of his research for one of his recent books, and a new play is going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. There’s also an old Channel 4 documentary on YouTube which is worth a watch.

Some information relating to the case was quietly released last year by the Northern Constabulary (now part of Police Scotland), in response to an Freedom of Information request made using the excellent What Do They Know? site. The pictures in this blogpost are among a series of images and documents made public, and they appear not to have been widely published before, if at all.

Willie MacRae's gun, recovered from the scene.

Willie MacRae’s gun, recovered from the scene.

The conspiracy theory goes, roughly, that MacRae was murdered because he was considered a threat to the state, perhaps because of his role in anti-nuclear campaigns. The official version is outlined in a letter from the-then Lord Advocate Lord Fraser of Carmyllie to the Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, that is included in the files released by the police. It states that MacRae had been considering killing himself following a series of misfortunes in his personal life, and had told his brother and a friend about it.

The case remains closed and that seems extremely unlikely to change. But, once again, FOI has helped shed a small amount of new light on a matter of public interest.

Lecture: Privacy Law and Freedom of Information

Here’s my latest media law lecture, delivered to the first years at the University of Huddersfield today. It’s on privacy law, including the emerging case law from Max Mosley and others, breach of confidence and injunctions. There are also some extra bits on how to avoid unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives as well as Freedom of Information, one of my favourite topics.

The full presentation is here.

Leeds Lecture On Information, Digital Journalism And Hyperlocal

I’m teaching the first year Broadcast Journalists at the University of Leeds again this semester, and along with a series of practicals I gave them a lecture last week. It covered a few of the familiar themes I like to bang on about, including how journalists can make use of public documents, open data and FOI, the world of hyperlocal journalism, and some other trends in digital.

I also got a mention in for the new local TV stations due to launch later in the year, including Made In Leeds. Given the relatively low budgets the channels will have to play with, I imagine recent graduates like the ones I teach in Leeds and elsewhere may well make up the bulk of their staff.

Here’s the full presentation.

Leeds MA International Journalism Course, Lecture 2

Today was the second of the five lectures I’m giving to MA students on the International Journalism course at the University of Leeds. It was on the theme of how more information is now freely available than ever before, and looked at ways in which journalists use this information for news stories and other purposes.

You can take a look at the presentation here: http://prezi.com/ko03xsk9mfco/ma-lecture-2-university-of-leeds/

Inevitably, it was a bit of a canter through lots of different but related issues, including filming of public meetings, open data, data-driven journalism, various Freedom of Information laws, and online whistleblowing of the kind made famous by Wikileaks. I fell back a few times on stories I’d done for Saddleworth News using various pieces of data, I’m not sure whether the students from around the world were particularly fascinated to know about road crashes on the A62, but I hope I got the general points across.