Euan McColm: Inaction on press is louder than words

Rupert Murdoch and Alex Salmond during the opening of News International's Eurocentral printing plant in Motherwell in 2007. Picture: PA
Rupert Murdoch and Alex Salmond during the opening of News International's Eurocentral printing plant in Motherwell in 2007. Picture: PA
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THIS time last Sunday, according to First Minister Alex Salmond, the case for a separate Scottish solution to press regulation was “unarguable”.

He was adamant his government would lead a distinctive response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report into newspaper ethics. Nothing less than a Scottish regulator would do.

Last weekend’s newspapers were ­heavily briefed on Salmond’s preference for a tartan answer to the problem of a press seemingly out of control. The First Minister appeared on television to elucidate. He was quite certain that the crisis in our print media needed his personal intervention and gifts of leadership.

And then... and then it wasn’t “unarguable” at all. You’d be forgiven for missing it in among the maelstrom, but Salmond’s U-turn on the issue of press regulation was remarkable.

By midweek, he was minded to look at a UK-wide solution. By the time of a meeting with opposition leaders on Thursday afternoon he was happily nodding agreement that Scotland needn’t go it alone, save any tweaking of legal underpinning to “recognise” the differences in Scots Law. Though how differences in Scots Law would impact on the work of a cross-border regulator, I’m not at all sure. If the industry is to be regulated properly, ­semantic arguments over whether someone has been defamed or libelled, depending on which side of the Border an offending article appears, are no more than a distraction.

The First Minister’s volte-face on the issue of press regulation reveals two things. The first is that he and the SNP Government instinctively want to “take action” – or be seen to “take action” – at Holyrood, even if this is unnecessary. The pro-­independence narrative demands all matters are better dealt with in Scotland. Salmond’s nation-building exercise requires him to point out where we differ from the rest of the UK, and then to offer fixes. That Scotland no more needs a separate press regulator than it needs a different calendar or a distinctive name for cheese was neither here nor there when the nationalists saw a chance to prove their indispensability and highlight what they require us to believe are our peculiar needs.

The second thing Salmond’s change of heart reveals is his natural caution. The First Minister’s initial response to Leveson saw him at his populist best. He sniffed public outrage and, with it, the opportunity to score points. This is perfectly ­reasonable political thinking. Leveson’s findings – all 2,000-plus pages – required an immediate response. Salmond – and this is a view of those close to him – had to say something quickly, even if he missed the target. A friend of the First Minster would have me believe – and I’m inclined to – that given time to think about where the route to a separate Scottish regulator might take him, he quickly reconsidered his position.

Salmond – all politicians in fact – feels the need to attack the ­media. But the First Minister does not want to pick a fight with news­papers he has worked so hard to woo. More than any other contemporary Scottish politician, Salmond has worked flat out to charm editors and proprietors. If you doubt his determination to keep on the right side of powerful media figures, remember he was willing to lobby the Westminster Government over Rupert Murdoch’s thwarted plan to take over BSkyB long after other politicians were battling to distance themselves from the mogul over the phone hacking scandal that led to the closure of the News Of The World last summer.

That’s not to say that Salmond is ready to walk away and leave newspapers to our own devices. It’s just that he might. A key SNP strategist referred – in an unguarded moment during one of our discussions last week – to the “Leveson story”. That’s how Salmond views this matter, now. And his next move will be heavily influenced by how the “story” moves on.

Those around the First Minister think the worst of the Leveson story will have played out by the end of the year. If there is less public anger about the press in general, watch Salmond move further still from offering a legislative response. The First Minister – along with all mainstream party leaders – wants to return to business as usual with the press as soon as possible. Yes, they want to be seen to be taking on the scum. But they’d rather like those same scum, especially the ones with large readerships, to endorse them at the 2016 Holyrood election.

Two years before then, politicians would like papers to take sides on the independence referendum. I believe Salmond will struggle to find a major newspaper to call for a “yes” vote, but he may well be able to influence some editors to take a neutral stance. Don’t imagine that this will not be at the front of the First Minister’s mind as he plans his next move.

There’s a danger this analysis makes the First Minister appear terribly cynical. In the interests of balance, I should point out that his opponents are no better. Labour’s Johann Lamont may well have parroted Ed Miliband’s call for Leveson’s recommendations to be accepted in full, but the past few days have seen a softening on the issue of statutory underpinning of a new system of self-regulation. After a period of reflection, nobody in Scottish Labour is willing to die in a ditch to see legislative interference in press standards.

Salmond, Lamont and other senior Scottish political figures have yet more to say about the need for reform of the press, but expect them to follow rather than lead public opinion from now on. At those all-party talks on Thursday, it was agreed that lawyers would look at Leveson’s proposals and report back on how Scotland might adopt them. This is no more than the ­routine work we might expect of civil servants. But at least it let Salmond give the impression he was taking action. Even if he doesn’t actually have to or, as now seems clear, doesn’t much want to, either.

Twitter: @euanmccolm