A surprising attack on Steven Purcell's legal and PR advisers appeared in yesterday's Sunday Herald. I have no intention of repeating it here; when you are tip-toeing across a minefield, the last thing you want to do is stand on one.
Sufficient to say that the journalists who wrote the piece believe that the actions taken on Mr Purcell's behalf were counter-productive and that, had the former leader of Glasgow City Council made a candid acknowledgement of his problems at the beginning of last week, he might still have had a political career at the end of it. Frankly, I doubt it; but let that pass.
This strongly worded criticism was surprising not least because most Scottish journalists appear to be awed, if not over-awed, by Levy & McRae, the firm of solicitors engaged by Mr Purcell. The firm specialises in defamation – dread word. Perhaps journalists are right to be so affected, for last week alone Levy & McRae issued warnings to the media and Glasgow City Council, miscellaneously invoking the European Human Rights Act, the Press Complaints Commission, the UK Information Commissioner and, for all I know, Uncle Tom Cobley and All. I hope I am not in trouble for mentioning Uncle Tom Cobley, who has been dead these many years. It was only a joke, m'Lud.
The strongly worded criticism was surprising for another reason. All week, as one startling revelation after another tumbled out, the Herald had been uncharacteristically subdued about Mr Purcell and his many troubles. One day, at the height of it all, the paper was subdued to the point of invisible, leaving its Edinburgh rival, the Scotsman, to make hay with the juiciest Glasgow story in years. You could say that the Scotsman was lucky in having obtained, by undisclosed means, an interesting insight into a disagreement about how Mr Purcell's health and departure were to be officially dealt with. But you could also say that the Herald's coverage was timid by comparison.
It may not be wholly irrelevant – it may even be performing a small public service – to report the facts about Levy & McRae's associations with the Scottish media, particularly since the public is unlikely to be informed of these associations by the media.
Among the firm's many high-profile clients is Newsquest, owner of the Herald and Sunday Herald. Indeed, if you visit Levy & McRae's website, you will discover a glowing testimonial from Tim Blott, regional managing director of Newsquest. 'Undoubtedly the best libel lawyers in Scotland,' he enthuses. 'The quality of advice and customer service is exceptional'. I made the same elementary mistake myself a few editions ago in referring to libel lawyers. As a vigilant reporter on the Scottish Daily Express reminded me, there is no such thing as libel in Scotland. We have defamation instead.
Mr Blott is not the only media executive to have a high opinion of Levy & McRae. Mark Hollinshead, head honcho at the Daily Record, describes the firm as its 'key partner' in legal questions – particularly in 'making decisions quickly'. Rupert Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting is another client, Levy & McRae 'enforcing copyright and licensing' for Sky in Scotland. According to Chambers, the bible of the legal profession, 'the team regularly acts for big-ticket clients such as Trinity Mirror, the Sunday Herald and ITV, as well as advising a number of publications. In addition, it does reputation management work for celebrities and high-profile individuals, as well as for Glasgow City Council and South Lanarkshire'. Chambers notes also that 'prominent individuals from the world of business, TV, film, music and sport retain the services of Levy & McRae to ensure that reputations are protected from unwarranted intrusion and defamation', while the firm itself says that it 'advises radio and TV broadcasters in both Scotland and England'. Another testimonial calls it 'the go-to-firm for intricate matters regarding defamation, reputation management and privacy'.
The firm's penetration of the media is admired even by non-media clients. Ann Gloag, the co-founder of the Stagecoach bus operation, praises Levy & McRae's senior partner, Peter Watson, for helping her with a successful challange to the 'Right to Roam' legislation, noting that the firm's expertise in 'working with the media' had been 'invaluable'.
Another satisfied client is Rangers Football Club, whose chief executive, Martin Bain, reports on the firm's website that Levy & McRae had 'at all times protected and defended our interests vigorously' for the last four years. Last December, the firm was engaged by Sir David Murray in a complaint against the Daily Telegraph, obtaining 'an appropriate and prompt apology' from the paper after it wrongly reported the circumstances surrounding Sir David's 'ceasing to be' chairman of the club.
On one side or another, then, Levy & McRae is, in matters media, the hot ticket. Yet, although he is now as much of a celebrity as many of his clients, comparatively little is known about the man at the centre of so many of last week's developments in the Purcell affair.
Who is Peter Watson?
He was born in Greenock in 1954 and educated at the Universities of Strathclyde and Edinburgh. He sits as a part-time sheriff. He is a past president of the Society of Solicitor Advocates. In 2008, he was named 'Solicitor of the Year' in Scotland. He lists his hobbies as golf, horse-racing and travel. But he is not a man who has given many interviews: not many I can source, anyway.
One I did find, as long ago as 1996, appeared in The Lawyer magazine. His first job was delivering newspapers as a schoolboy. If he hadn't ended up as a lawyer, he would have wanted to be the presenter of a wine programme. He named Pamela Anderson (an actress and former model, now a campaigner on animal welfare issues) as the famous person he would most like to go out with, Rogano as his favourite restaurant, and his 'most-often-worn piece of clothing' as his Rolex wrist-watch. He was asked what he hates about himself. 'The amount of money I spend on cars,' he said. He drives a Jaguar; or did then.
When asked what piece of advice he would give to anyone entering the legal profession, his reply was: 'Leave it at once'. Of course, all this was a very long time ago. Mr Watson did not leave the legal profession. Instead he kept rising within it.
He is 'outstanding and bright, impressing clients with his intelligence and his wonderful demeanour'. That is what it says about Mr Watson in Chambers, the bible of the legal profession.
But although Levy & McRae wins case after case, it does not win every case. I have discovered, for example, a case it lost in 2007 involving the same Mrs Gloag as mentioned before.
Levy & McRae acted for her in a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission that an article in the Perthshire Advertiser had identified her as the relative of someone accused of a crime; this, Mrs Gloag argued, was in breach of the PCC's code. The commission rejected her complaint. It found that 'she was genuinely relevant to the story...it would in fact have been perverse for the article not to have referred to the complainant in circumstances where the newspaper was entitled to publish details of the court order – including the name of Kinfauns Castle – and where the complainant's ownership of the castle had already been well established in the public domain'. (The complainant's home had been specifically named in court papers as a location from which the accused person had been prohibited.)
I mention this case because, of course, Mr Watson of Levy & McRae has complained about the conduct of newspapers in their reporting of the Purcell affair on the grounds that it was 'harassment of a sick man'. The sick man, it has now been established, had a private meeting with two police officers in his office at the City Chambers on 12 May 2009. The branch of the police has not been formally disclosed, but is widely thought to have been the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency.
I hope – indeed I expect – that, in the light of all that is now known, the Press Complaints Commission will reject Levy & McRae's complaint. There is such a thing as the public interest.
Read Kenneth Roy in Scottish Review