ALEX Salmond was last night looking increasingly isolated in the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry as opposition leaders and legal experts rejected his plans for a separate Scottish system of press-regulation.
The First Minister’s hopes of creating a cross-party consensus around the best way of scrutinising the press north of the Border lay in tatters even as he underlined his determination to forge ahead with a distinctly Scottish watchdog.
In a statement accompanying a letter he sent to opposition leaders inviting them to talks this week, Salmond said the case for a separate Scottish “solution” on press regulation was “unarguable”.
The First Minister’s letter spoke of the importance of achieving agreement across the parties on the issue. But his uncompromising pursuit of a separate Scottish regulatory body, based on the Irish model, angered his opponents, who argued that it made sense to deal with the press on a UK-wide basis.
Last night, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said she was “not convinced” of the need for separate Scottish system.
Willie Rennie, leader of the Lib Dems, also said that he favoured a UK approach, arguing: “We need cross-party consensus, but we also need cross-border cooperation. With so many publications with Scottish and UK editions it makes sense that we agree on a press regulation regime that can be applied across the UK. We need the Scottish voice to be heard in UK debate.”
The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was also critical of Salmond’s approach arguing that it had “backfired spectacularly” in the rush to launch his own plans for press regulation. “Newspaper publishers do not want and will not pay for two systems when one will do,” she said.
“The industry will sign up to a UK-wide system and if Mr Salmond truly believes in press freedom he cannot compel newspapers to join his system. Therefore, whatever he devises is likely to be redundant before it has begun.”
Salmond has asked to meet the opposition leaders on Thursday, two days after MSPs debate Lord Justice Leveson’s findings.
Last week, Leveson said British newspapers had been guilty of malpractice that “wreaked havoc on the lives of innocent people” and recommended a new regulatory body underpinned by law.
In his statement, Salmond indicated he intends to make the case for a Scottish regulator, based on the Irish model, where a voluntary code, a Press Council and an independent Ombudsman have been “recognised” in statute.
He said: “I have already made clear that I believe the Irish model of press regulation has much to commend it and much that we could learn from. That does not mean that we should necessarily follow the Irish system exactly, but we should look seriously at whether it can be adapted sensibly for Scotland’s needs. I believe it is clear that the case for a Scottish solution to these important issues is unarguable.”
He added that the new system should command the support of the public, which was angered by phone hacking and other illegal activity. The backlash against Salmond’s plans was not confined to his political opponents. Austin Lafferty, the president of the Law Society of Scotland and a media lawyer, said two sets of regulations each side of the Border were a recipe for “confusion”. He also attacked any move to create a new press law.
“We have thrown away enough freedoms and this would be another nail in the coffin,” he said.
Other lawyers also warned that the proposal would be “unworkable”. Scott Milne, managing partner of Thornton’s law practice in Dundee said: “I can’t see how two systems would work effectively. This would apply to the printed media and electronic media. Something written in England might pass muster but not up here. How do you do that? You can’t draw a line on the internet at Berwick.”
Westminster is also split on Leveson with David Cameron expressing “serious concerns and misgivings” about the proposal to introduce legal underpinning. Nick Clegg and the Labour Party have said they favour Leveson’s recommendation.
Meanwhile, a petition calling for the UK’s three main party leaders to bring in a new press watchdog backed by law has attracted more than 60,000 signatures since being launched by high profile victims of media intrusion.
Gerry McCann, father of missing Madeleine, and Christopher Jefferies, the landlord wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates, urged the public to back their online campaign after Cameron indicated he was against the recommendations to introduce legislation.
The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, will meet the newspaper industry’s most powerful editors this week to push for urgent action in the setting up of a new press watchdog, hoping it will prove to the public that new laws are not needed.