Salmond could accept new UK-wide watchdog for Scottish press

First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: PA
First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: PA
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ALEX Salmond yesterday attempted to build bridges with his political opponents, indicating he might accept a UK-wide press regulator in Scotland.

The First Minister appeared to soften his stance on the Leveson recommendations when he suggested that a UK regulator could operate on both sides of the Border provided it was underpinned by Scots Law.

Mr Salmond had repeatedly said he favours a Scottish body based on the Irish model, which has seen the creation of a Irish press ombudsman and council “recognised” in statute.

The emergence of another option came as MSPs debated Lord Justice Leveson’s findings yesterday and follows criticism from legal experts and Mr Salmond’s opponents, who have argued press regulation should be applied consistently across the UK.

Three opposition leaders – Labour’s Johann Lamont, the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats – all said they would prefer press regulation on a pan-UK basis.

The differences of opinion between the SNP and the other parties meant Mr Salmond had been struggling to achieve the cross-party consensus he had called for on the issue. The first indication that he was willing to compromise came when he intervened during Mr Rennie’s contribution to the debate.

Mr Salmond said: “Any self-regulating body could apply to be considered to be the appropriate body to be underpinned. It is for this parliament to decide the criteria for the statutory underpinning.”

The First Minister’s spokesman confirmed a UK-wide regulatory body may be accepted by the SNP government. The spokesman said: “The Scottish solution of the application of Leveson depends on the underpinning rather than the body.

“It could be a UK-wide body, but it would have to be underpinned from this parliament. The solution lies in the underpinning – not necessarily the body. The onus is on the industry to come forward with a proposal for self-regulation.”

Mr Salmond also said he disagreed with Lord Leveson’s controversial proposal that the UK government quango Ofcom could oversee press regulation and suggested a judge could fulfil that obligation in Scotland.

“It doesn’t have to be a politician. It doesn’t have to be a body at all. It could be done by a court,” Mr Salmond said.

Entrusting a judge with overseeing a press scrutiny panel would be a departure from the model in Ireland, where the justice minister has that role.

Mr Salmond’s spokesman said: “The First Minister has suggested that rather than having a direct role for a justice secretary, the statute from this parliament could have a prescribed role for a judge rather than a minister.”

But with David Cameron opposing new laws on press regulation at Westminster, the prospect of the SNP government setting up a Scottish body underpinned by the law remains a strong possibility.

The SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems have all said they favour statutory backing of an independent regulator. Tomorrow, Mr Salmond will meet Ms Lamont, Mr Rennie and Ms Davidson to discuss the way forward.

Mr Salmond admitted that “elements of criminality and other media malpractice are not in general associated with the Scottish press as a whole”.

But he did say that Scotland’s separate defamation law and legal framework, and evidence of some malpractice, meant there should be a “significant response distinctive to Scotland”.

Mr Salmond has announced the establishment of an independent implementation group to be chaired by a recent or current Court of Session judge. “All parties at Holyrood are welcome to suggest non-practising political representatives as potential members of that group,” he said.