Judging, the Media and the Need for Fairness and Transparency

By Robert Wallace
By Robert Wallace

Well, we are where we are. But where are we? And are we where we want to be? Shouldn’t we be somewhere else? And if so how do we get from where we are to where we want to be?

Don’t worry I’m baffled too, and I offer this writhing gobbledygook as an example of the sort of Rumsfeldian (known knowns etc.) mash talk ‘prose’ you will not find in the pages of Piping Press. We like to give it to people straight: no convolution, no spin.

The job of the journalist is just that; to report the facts and, if the subject warrants it, offer comment based on those facts. It is a principle difficult for some to understand. Seldom does the truth garner one friends. Yet it must be told and we must be brave enough to tell it. Provided it is fair and balanced and the right of reply is guaranteed what not to like?

Plenty it would seem. Last year it was proposed that the new Solo Judges Association change its nascent Code of Conduct, in particular that it alter an existing rule regarding judges writing for the media. Not surprisingly the matter quickly entered the piping public domain, discussed informally at length. The proposal would have banned articles by adjudicators from the bench, full stop. Hard to imagine that such a draconian dictat would see daylight but there you have it. Naturally I was perturbed (as were a number of my fellow solo adjudicators) and I pointed out the following:

1 If adopted this rule would certainly see less reporting of piping competitions. Running a not-for-profit web magazine, I for one, could not afford to commission individuals suitably qualified as writers and as pipers (rare beasts), to attend, say, the Argyllshire Gathering. These articles were very popular with the piping public; those from Oban and Inverness got 2,000+ readers in one day and were there as points of reference for the future - the readership continued long after the event. Would it be healthy for piping if, as a result of this rule change, we restricted this knowledge stream and quest for information?

2 This proposal effectively reversed almost 100 years of piping custom and practice. The vast majority of articles written in the past were done from the bench by luminaries such as Sheriff JP Grant, Rothiemurchus, A & J Campbell, Kilberry, Gen. Richardson, Seumas MacNeill, John MacFadyen, David Murray and Captain John MacLellan. In the modern era, myself, Hugh MacCallum, Malcolm McRae, Jack Taylor and Andrew Wright had followed this tradition. I believed their/our reports had helped enrich our piping heritage. With this rule in place none, or very few of the articles by any of the above would have been written.

3 The idea that in other walks of life judges did not disclose their views to the public, a reason I had heard given to justify this proposal, was not in fact the case. Civil actions, industrial tribunals, public inquiries all frequently made the views of the presiding officer/judge available to the public, this transparency seen as an important check on attitude and partiality and a demonstration that due process had been followed.

4 I could understand it when individuals got discomfited over an unfavourable comment about their playing, but we should not confuse substance with principal. We could not constrain free speech just because we did not like the speaker, what he said or the way he said it. I pointed out that at my granddaughter’s last piano competition the chairwoman of the judging panel stood up and publicly named and criticised the non-prize winners telling them where they had gone wrong. These had not been professional, adult musicians such as those playing for top prizemoney and international prestige at the main piping events, but schoolchildren aged 9 -15.

5 Should this proposal go through did it mean that an adjudicator would be banned from speaking to the media about a competition? Might a reporter be refused a comment when he approached a judge after, say, the Gold Medal? Would that be acceptable whilst a more detailed interview with the piping media would not? If so, we were getting into the dangerous waters of censorship - what can be said by Association members and what cannot. Where would the line be drawn and who would draw it? In the free world was this not verging on the ridiculous?

It was later pointed out to me in casual conversation that the RSPBA did not allow their adjudicators to write articles. I countered by saying we were not comparing like with like. The RSPBA had sole responsibility for all major championships and could control them as they saw fit. Solo contests were run by disparate bodies each with their own rules and traditions. If any made a media ban a condition of accepting a judging assignment the individual was free to do so or not.

Furthermore the RSPBA may not allow articles to be written by judges but they did publish each adjudicator's findings in summary sheets at the conclusion of every major championship. One could argue that here was an even greater degree of transparency than found in solo competition. So follow the RSPBA example and ban articles but publish summaries of where each judge placed each piper 1 - 25 in the Gold Medal? I don't think so.

In the end wisdom prevailed and the judges voted against the proposal and I hope it remains in the waste bin never again to raise its illiberal head. Unfortunate that so much time and negative emotion was expended over it, and the whole episode illustrates the precarious world we enter when we dare to put pen to paper.