MSPs outdo Westminster on support for free Press – John McLellan

A quick Saturday quiz: who said this about what? “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has announced a £3m advertising and marketing investment in Scottish newspapers to help communicate key information through the coronavirus recovery.

A quick Saturday quiz: who said this about what? “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

Nicola Sturgeon when she was told about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new “Stay Alert” message for the easing of lockdown? Ms Sturgeon when she was told about ex-Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood’s weekend getaways to Fife? Or Ms Sturgeon when confronting ex-Finance Minister Derek Mackay about his young Facebook acquaintance?

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No, it’s not the First Minister but a Prime Minister, although it’s not difficult to imagine her saying that in those circumstances. Well, perhaps not nincompoop, but you get the idea. The answer is Tony Blair and he was writing in his 2010 memoir Tony Blair: A Journey about the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation in 2000, one of the key pledges in Labour’s 1997 election manifesto.

Once enacted, Mr Blair was dogged by the new measures, particularly the FoI requests in the lead-up to, and throughout the years following, the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. But even so, it’s remarkable that a Prime Minister should regret so ruefully his own legislation which has been hailed for allowing significant amounts of light to be shone on the processes by which decisions are made by public authorities large and small and is a standard part of the democratic tool-kit.

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But even in much less dramatic circumstances, it’s not difficult to see why politicians regard it as an ever-present danger. “Is this FoI-able?” is a constant refrain whenever politicians and public servants are gathered together, which is why encrypted WhatsApp messaging has become the conduit of choice and emails kept strictly for bland business. Or at least that’s the theory.

The FoI system is far from perfect and authorities can hide behind cost, personal information or commercial confidentiality to keep correspondence under wraps, or in the case of the Iraq War, ministerial advice and national security. Despite FoI, it took the Chilcott Report to open up the background to war in Iraq and even that took seven years to deliver its limited findings, 13 years after the invasion.

No FoI exemption for embarrassment

Journalists and opposition politicians use it frequently – I have one running just now about the decision to close Marketing Edinburgh (short-sighted even before the coronavirus crisis killed the Capital’s visitor economy) and sure enough it has been rejected on the grounds of cost, complexity and personal confidentiality.

The FoI Acts (the Scottish version was passed in 2002) make it clear that embarrassment is not a reason to withhold information, but the barriers erected by authorities to slow up release of awkward details can mean it is months before they see the light of day. After a rejection there is a review and if that fails an appeal can be made to the FoI Commissioner, and even if successful by that time the moment might be lost and interest only academic.

The Scottish Government’s plan to temporarily extend the initial deadline for responses from 20 days to 60 days would obviously have delayed releases even further, but it was hard to understand the justification that it would relieve the burden on officials dealing with the pandemic. The requests wouldn’t stop coming and the hiatus was likely to result in a backlog just as the recovery phases were kicking in, which is likely to be more complex than complete lockdown because staff will be coping with a public expectation of some return to normality while continuing with social distancing restrictions.

But thanks to an amendment from Green MSP Ross Greer, the deadline extension was scrapped this week and the embarrassment of becoming the first Western country to use the coronavirus outbreak as a reason to make it more difficult to access official papers was avoided.

It would have contributed to a perception that the UK in general has an uneasy relationship with information and Press freedom. Despite then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt hosting the Global Conference for Media Freedom last year, Britain still slid two places to 35th in the World Press Freedom Index, although that was largely because of the shooting of Irish journalist Lyra McKee by paramilitaries, and the remand of Wikileaks leader Julian Assange.

Mixed record on freedom of expression

As this column argued last week, the Scottish Government currently has a mixed record on freedom of expression issues, with the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill trying to impose restrictions on what people can or cannot say without prosecution, just as the Defamation and Malicious Publications Bill is set to modernise and liberalise Scottish libel laws.

But at a time of financial crisis in media industries, the cause of a strong, sustainable and free Scottish Press took significant strides forward in the past fortnight, with the announcement in the Scottish Parliament by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes of a £3m advertising and marketing investment in Scottish newspapers to help communicate key information through the coronavirus recovery. And after an amendment by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Parliament this week also approved the extension of emergency business rates relief to news publishers which will help ensure that publications large and small are still there to carry those key Government messages. As a result the News Media Association is intensifying its campaign for similar reliefs to be introduced in the rest of the UK.

With UK Government marketing support too, it makes the Scottish Press one of the best-supported anywhere in Europe during the crisis, not quite up with Denmark‘s media support scheme of about £21 million, but still an impressive commitment by politicians of all parties to the maintenance of the main means by which they are held publicly accountable.

There has been much discussion amongst politicians about not going back to the old ways, to build a new society and economy we would like to see, and to turn the tragedy of the coronavirus outbreak into an opportunity to create something better than what went before. Even if the shape is undecided it is still true, but the opportunity must surely include the stabilising of a sustainable media which has been battered by the onward march of the American tech giants.

While they too might sometimes feel like nincompoops when they are on the receiving end of criticism or an exposé, Scottish politicians have recognised how important it is.

Ex-Scotsman editor John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a Conservative councillor.

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