Brian Wilson: Salmond hoist by his own petard

Salmond used premise of press regulation to drive a further wedge between Scotland and UK. Picture: AFP/Getty
Salmond used premise of press regulation to drive a further wedge between Scotland and UK. Picture: AFP/Getty
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First Minister’s rush to make his own headlines has backfired once more with needless report, writes Brian Wilson

Do we really want to be the most authoritarian wee country in the western world? And is it now the highest aspiration of our politics to do things differently, even if that means doing them worse?

These questions arise, most immediately, out of the thoroughly bizarre Scottish dimension to the debate about what to do with the Leveson recommendations. Westminster hasn’t covered itself with glory, but Holyrood is high farce.

We now have a report that should never have been commissioned and the conclusions of which nobody wants anything to do with – including the man who commissioned it, First Minister Alex Salmond. Lord McCluskey’s report was rushed out on Friday to avoid being overtaken by events. Then, on Monday, it was overtaken by events.

This is what comes from running government by stunt. There was never any justification for a pre-emptive Scottish report on a Scottish response to Leveson with a view to setting up a separate Scottish system of press regulation. It was a tartan herring, irrelevant to the substance of the Leveson inquiry.

As widely pointed out at the time, the whole exercise was based on an entirely false premise – that the Scottish press should be subjected to either a fundamentally different form of regulation from the rest of the UK (far less a tougher one) or that it should, under any circumstances, be answerable to two regulatory regimes. Neither outcome was, or is, sustainable. But the mere hypothesis satisfied the two primary driving forces of Salmond’s political pyche: short-term headlines and an opportunity to drive wedges between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It was then necessary to recruit a cast of extras to participate in this doomed exercise. And now it has backfired.

If Salmond had any genuine interest in the ethics or even the economics of the Scottish press, then Leveson would not have been his starting point. Yet, Lord McCluskey’s remit was limited to extrapolating conclusions from the Leveson recommendations. There was no evidence taken or submissions invited. The only remit was to “be different”.

Unfortunately, the difference which emerged went far beyond Leveson’s own conclusions – compulsory registration and regulation of every significant publisher of news, both in print and online. There is a logic to that, I admit. But it is one which pointed alarmingly in the direction of political interference in the Scottish press alone, which no number of safeguards could dispel.

I am deeply opposed to separate laws for the press – and, equally, I have advocated over many years that the vast majority of abuses would be addressed if the press was subjected to the same law of the land as everyone else. The recent scandals lay in the fact that sections of the press had been allowed to operate outside the law, sometimes in collaboration with the police. Nothing to do with regulation.

Such conduct may have occurred in Scotland, but this was certainly not its epicentre. We may have grumbled about being caught up in the regulatory backlash of these events – in common with the vast majority of publications elsewhere in the UK. The one thing that Leveson did not justify was a Scottish system of regulation that could still turn out to be more rigorous and intrusive than in the rest of the UK.

Where the McCluskey report was logically correct was in its conclusion that a voluntary system of self-regulation does not guarantee very much. That is what persuaded it to go down the road of compulsory registration. At that point, however, the sense of proportion had gone out of the window – particularly because its recommendations were restricted to the relatively benign Scottish press. A difficulty was to be solved by the creation of a threat.

Whatever the inadequacies of the present system, they are as nothing compared to the potential for mischief and manipulation that would be opened up if we went down the compulsory route. An essential part of press freedom is to tell not only a politician but also a regulator appointed by politicians to stay well clear. There is much to be said for the right to “publish and be damned” – or at least take a risk.

Even its admirers would have to confess that the recent legislative programme of Holyrood is thin gruel – and virtually non-existent in terms of anything that might be called radical in social and economic terms. And it is this vacuum which is increasingly filled by what are regarded – wrongly, I hope – as populist or popular causes, such as press regulation.

Another of these Salmondite exercises is rapidly coming back to haunt him – and, much more important, to cause a great deal of bitterness and trouble for the people who are caught up in it. I refer to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act which, again against all warnings, created criminal offences that are peculiar to football supporters.

The results have been entirely predictable. The police have been put in the position of enforcing this law and some of them are accused of having been over-zealous in doing so. Significant numbers of young men are being given criminal records for behaviour that would not, in any other context, be treated as an offence. The whole thing is turning into a dangerous, pernicious mess.

The only winners are those who enjoy conflict. For the vast majority of police officers, this legislation is something they most definitely did not need or want. Large numbers of the young people they deal with in parts of Scotland are being alienated by the requirement to enforce a law that might have been designed to promote exactly that kind of polarisation.

This was a law born out of pure political opportunism – incidents at a Celtic-Rangers football match that were grossly inflated in their significance, phone calls between First Minister and Chief Constable, a high-profile summit, lots of headlines – and then an ill-thought out, discriminatory law that the police are required to enforce and society is left to live with.

As for the stated aim of attacking sectarianism, it has contributed nothing. There were already laws aplenty which addressed that issue and progress was being made, in the context of football and more generally.

Now that, too, is being endangered as the treatment of one group of supporters is contrasted with that of another, with the police in the middle.

Our devolved rulers love to talk the language of enlightened social democracy. Unfortunately, their actions and instincts consistently appear to be of a more reactionary hue.