Is the SNP planning to shatter the Scottish Press into a thousand little local pieces? – John McLellan

While founded by a Scot 193 years ago, published by a Scot for the past 17 years and edited by a Scot since 2009, it’s fair to say The Spectator magazine, with its brand of soft-right Conservatism and free-market economics, is not high on the weekly reading priorities of the average Scottish household.

The Spectator magazine, published by Andrew Neil, has taken an audacious step by becoming involved in the ongoing row over the Scottish government's handling of complaints against Alex Salmond, says John McLellan (Getty Images)

Still a guardian of the pillars of the English establishment, as evidenced by last week’s splash on the decline of the Church of England (it’s plugged on the front again this week), but wrapped up with wit, irreverence and slick writing, it is a rare print success story, bursting through the 100,000 sales mark last year while its more po-faced left-of-centre rival New Statesman pechs away in the distance on 36,500.

The strength of the indigenous Scottish Press, of which this paper is an illustrious member, has been such that political periodicals have historically struggled here and even ten years ago the total market was no more than 5,000 copies.

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Scotland’s appetite for political weeklies is unlikely to grow much, but that doesn’t mean the Spectator’s publisher-editor duo of Andrew Neil and Fraser Nelson, both formerly of The Scotsman’s parish, don’t think there is an opportunity at a time when the SNP and the Scottish government is – or should be – under the closest scrutiny.

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Last week the magazine successfully applied to the High Court in Edinburgh to have a contempt of court order amended to allow the Scottish Parliament inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair to publish key documents, and clear the way for the former First Minister to appear.

Having already published the redacted document itself, it was an audacious move which thrust the magazine into the middle of the biggest story in Scottish politics when it has previously only been an intermittent commentator.

But this is not just some cynical marketing stunt; The Spectator has criticised the Scottish Press for not doing more to hold the SNP’s feet to the fire, and both believe implicitly in the need for the Press to do all it can to bring the powerful to book, and that includes using the courts to ensure power is wielded lawfully.

From the judicial review of the Scottish government’s probe into the complaints against Mr Salmond to Joanna Cherry’s challenge of the prorogation of the UK parliament, rarely have the Scottish courts been called upon as often to test the limits of government power.

With The Scotsman’s latest poll showing the SNP still on course to secure an absolute majority in May’s Scottish elections, the need for a demonstrably independent Scottish judiciary and a robust and fearless Scottish Press has never been greater.

The Salmond inquiry – and the attendant threats of contempt prosecutions, allegations of perjury, and claims of political pressure on the police and prosecution service – is as good an example as any why a clear division between government and the legal system is essential, yet the head of the legal service, the Lord Advocate, is a government member.

The day before The Spectator was winning its case, the Scottish Conservatives sought to force an independent public inquiry led by a judge from outside Scotland into the malicious prosecution of the two administrators handling the Rangers liquidation, a scandal which could yet cost Scottish tax-payers £100m.

The move was defeated and instead there is only a commitment by Lord Advocate James Wolffe to an inquiry of a form still to be determined. With ultimate responsibility for prosecution resting with the Lord Advocate’s office, the Scottish government is effectively setting the terms for an investigation into itself, and look how the two Salmond inquiries have turned out.

Following that debate was another about the immediate future of the Scottish Press, brought about by the Scottish government’s decision to withdraw emergency business rates relief from Scottish news publishing from March 31 and not committing to extend advertising investment after a £3.4m deal agreed at the start of the pandemic expires the same day.

Here I must declare an interest because that decision was communicated to me as director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, and it created real concern amongst publishers large and small of a cliff-edge when the economic catastrophe of the pandemic is not over. This time the opposition united to outvote the SNP and approve further support, but as the vote is non-binding there are no guarantees.

Responding to Conservative MSP Graham Simpson’s call to help news publishers survive the crisis, the remarks by trade minister Ivan McKee indicated the Scottish government thinks “the internet” is a news publisher in its own right, that one-man-band hyper-local websites can do things established titles cannot, or that subscriptions to quality sites cannot be grown.

Promising to support public interest journalism “however it is delivered” suggested a vision of small organisations and contrasted with veiled criticism of large publishers; it seems rates relief is fine for Asda but not The Scotsman. Meanwhile in New Zealand (population 4.9 million), the government has just unveiled a Press support fund worth £28.6m over three years.

Small, online-only publishers can do great things, but lack of scale often means intermittent publication, high vulnerability and low visibility. They can also be picked off.

Over the last weeks, some of the most detailed, revealing and possibly illegal coverage of the Salmond affair has come from two bloggers: the former diplomat Craig Murray, who awaits the outcome of a contempt-of-court charge arising from material he posted during the criminal trial which cleared Mr Salmond, and controversial Wings over Scotland founder Stuart Campbell.

But it’s only when the information enters the mainstream, as it has done with The Spectator, that the broader public beyond activists, extremists and political geeks become aware.

A judiciary intertwined with government and a Press shattered into a thousand little local pieces is no basis for a properly accountable democracy, but unless the SNP can demonstrate otherwise, it looks like that’s what it wants.

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