Jim Sillars: Alex, climb off the grandstand

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I hope Alex Salmond is backpedalling like mad from the McCluskey committee he set up to look at press regulation. A characteristic of Alex’s time as First Minister has been grandstanding, and he just couldn’t resist having, as he often puts it, a Scottish solution to a Scottish problem when Leveson and the press in England were hot topics.

I have great respect for John 
McCluskey, but his committee’s report is barking mad. They are proposing legislation that, no matter how many safeguards they think can be inserted, would give government for the first time a role in press regulation; and that means ultimate government ability to censor the press. No matter how well-meaning today’s politicians are, there can be no guarantee that future generations of government ministers, armed with legislation, will not use it when they are under pressure from investigative journalists digging into and exposing unsavoury, unlawful or corrupt practices, backed up by fearless editors. Parliamentarians, and those who advise them as McCluskey does, should always remember that many a road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Was Salmond grandstanding? How else can we explain him setting up the McCluskey committee, when the scandals that have embraced the Murdoch papers and others, did not come from the Scottish press? That cosy, corrupt relationship between press, politicians and police arose in the metropolitan bubble of London. When Blair flew to be examined by Murdoch, to get his approval and curry favour with his editors, and Cameron did the same, that gave those editors and their journalists the idea that they had the politicos in their pockets, and could abuse the law with impunity.

But the laws we have are being proved mightier than any newspaper tycoon, editor, or journalist. It took time, but it was a free press, journalists digging and editors publishing facts and accusations in non-
Murdoch papers, that gave our laws the opportunity to act. There is a valuable peculiarity in a democracy – it cannot always stop corruption or abuses happening, but it is self-correcting; corruption and abuses are eventually flushed out and punished, and a crucial contributor to that self-correction is a press absolutely free from political control. Does anyone believe, given the way MPs tried every trick in the parliamentary book to avoid their expenses being published (all the detail blanked out, for example), that if they had had the ultimate power of press censorship, they would have allowed the Telegraph Group to publish their expenses?

Despite their incestuous relationship with top politicians, despite the politicians constantly courting their support and ignoring their abuses of power, those in the press who transgressed the law are now going in and out of the Old Bailey on a regular basis facing trial and jail if found guilty. We have seen a giant in the industry, the News of the World, 
destroyed. All without press regulation by politicians.

How times have changed. In March 1942, in the very dark days long before El Alamein turned the tide, the Daily Mirror published a cartoon to which the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison (Labour) took exception. Morrison called the editor in, gave him a tongue-lashing, then turned MI5 on to Zec the cartoonist, and went on to threaten to close down the paper.

Anueurin Bevan, accusing the government of “seeking to suppress their critics”, forced a debate in the House of Commons during which, in support of his position, Morrison suggested that the Mirror might be a fascist plot to undermine the government. MPs were appalled, and he had to beat a retreat. If, however, politicians had been a supine bunch, as many of today’s are in Westminster and Holyrood, they would have followed the minister, and the paper would have closed.

If MPs in those dark days had enough confidence in a free press operating under normal laws applying to everyone, why are today’s bunch, under no threat from an external power, but perhaps not liking the treatment they get from the press, so anxious to put the hems on it?

The best thing for Alex Salmond to have done when the London scandal broke, and Leveson had his inquiry, was to look at the temptation of the grandstand, decide not climb on, and leave Scotland’s press alone. There has been no law-breaking up here. We don’t need a Scottish solution to Scotland’s press problem, because there is none.

I am not an uncritical fan of the Scottish press. Journalists are not angels. During 53 years of public life I have been on the receiving end of press abuse, and practices verging on dirty tricks. Certain journalists I hold in utter contempt, no doubt the feeling being mutual. But the discomfort of politicians in the “dog to a lamppost” relationship with journalists is worth the price of a free press, 
because without it democracy is diminished.

Don’t be kidded by the House of Commons Royal Charter stuff requiring a two-thirds majority to overturn it. Parliament cannot bind its successors. A simple majority to overcome that little obstacle is all it will take.