John McLellan: The world needs trouble-makers ready to lift the lid

Gentlemen of the 'regional' Press giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry
Gentlemen of the 'regional' Press giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry
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An effective Press must misbehave at times, writes the editor of The Scotsman

‘The Village People have let themselves go,” tweeted one wag this week as four representatives of the Press beyond Fleet Street gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. And not surprisingly, the focus of the London papers’ coverage was the glamorous ladies from the likes of Hello! and Heat, who were on before the gentlemen of the regional Press, as metropolitan types like to call it.

“Like an episode of Crown Court,” was another observation, but it’s fair to say the reception my colleagues and I received was less hostile than used to be dished out in the 70s TV show. Indeed Lord Leveson assured us at one point that “there is no need to be defensive, I’m not in attack mode”. Given the evidence of previous sessions, we could have been forgiven for expecting a more adversarial atmosphere and to be seen as the goody-two-shoes kids at the front of the classroom is not something to which any of us is accustomed.

Of course it is unacceptable for any publication to undertake law-breaking as a matter of routine, as appears to have been the case at the News of the World, but there are occasions when breaking the law in the public interest can be justified. The Daily Telegraph, for example, could be deemed to have been in receipt of stolen goods when it accepted the MPs’ expenses files. Few sensible people would argue that the Telegraph was wrong to reveal the extent to which politicians were screwing the public purse. In fact most would agree it performed a public service.

Some have argued that this inquiry into the practices of the entire newspaper industry is pay-back for the exposure of the expenses scandal. What is essential is that newspapers can justify their actions and can show they have behaved responsibly at all times, even if this involved a decision to take a calculated legal risk. Similarly, there seems to be an assumption from some members of the public that subterfuge is by definition illegal and therefore unacceptable. Nothing could be further from the truth and exposing wrongdoing or bad practices is virtually impossible without guile and imagination from someone. The industrial scale of phone-hacking at the News of the World was revealed by a newspaper AFTER the police had decided to let the matter drop and that almost certainly involved police officers acting against the internal interests of their force.

Be it at the quality end of the Press or on regional papers, it is still part of our role to be trouble-makers and so if my fellow editors and I came over as the self-righteous brothers, then we humbly apologise.

As Lord Leveson comes up with a system not just to regulate the Press but to preserve freedom of expression, let’s hope he remembers that a vibrant, effective Press is one that needs the latitude for justifiable misbehaviour.

Freedom to argue

AMIDST the brouhaha about our columnist Joan McAlpine’s opinion that her political opponents were anti-Scottish in questioning the SNP’s referendum strategy, there was a view that we should not have published her article this week.

But it would have been odd to say the least for a newspaper to suspend a columnist for having the temerity to express an opinion, no matter how extreme. Some readers believe that as she is an SNP MSP, we should not give her a platform at all. But as a senior aide to the First Minister, Ms McAlpine’s writing provides a valuable insight into the Scottish Government’s thinking.

Freedom of speech also means having the freedom not just to argue but to be downright offensive. There may be consequences for the writer and publisher, but the ability to take the risk is something we should cherish.

All in good time

THREE years to go till the referendum and politicians on either side are wondering when The Scotsman is going to “come off the fence” on the issue. Three years to go, no-one knows yet who’s going to run it, whether it will be legal, who can vote, what the question or questions will be, or even if it will be a question at all, and we’re being asked for our position.

When we know what we’re dealing with and we’ve heard all the arguments, we will come to a view. Maybe in just under three years’ time. Right now the important thing is the debate and our role is to help facilitate the ongoing public dialogue.