Sunday, 2 December 2012

Keep the Heid!

So, Leveson has spoken and the world appears to have gone mad.

I simply have no idea why the Prime Minister required to provide a response to the Leveson Inquiry within three hours of it being published.

No matter what (if anything) the Government requires or intends to do in response to the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, it is a matter of common consensus that any action, whether requiring legislation or not, will take several months. And it is only common sense that no one person, let alone any Prime Minister with a bit of "governing" also to do could possibly have read the whole, 2500 page report, in the day and a bit between its receipt on Wednesday and Thursday afternoon's statement.

So why the Government could not simply have said they had received the report, that they would study it carefully and that they would respond within a given timescale is a mystery to me. After all, Government's take similar stances in relation to other externally commissioned reports all the time.

But what's done is done and that seems to me to be a matter of considerable regret on all sides of this debate.

For the Government, it looks like they had decided in advance that no matter how reasoned and reasonable Leveson's proposals might be they were going to be rejected. A similar criticism might be levelled at the press who, with even less time to digest the report before Friday's editorials, obviously also felt that if the Prime Minister responded instantly then so must they. In this regard they were, I think, too easily characterised as having their head in the sand.

But similarly, the decision of the Government to respond instantly has not served the interests of the other "side". Having on Thursday stated that Labour would implement Leveson in full, Ed himself has since worked out that the proposed role of Ofcom is bonkers (sorry m'lud); meanwhile,the otherwise admirable, nay heroic, figure of Tom Watson, the Party's National Campaign Co-ordinator is still firing out emails urging us Party members to sign a peitition demanding the recommendations be implemented in full. I presume it's not his intention to send it to Ed.

And similarly, Hacked Off have also been forced to rush to judgement that Cameron is unforgivably backsliding and that the only way forward is confrontation rather than engagement. Speaking from years of experience, confrontation with any Government mid-term on a single issue rarely achieves more than a sense of self-satisfaction.

And the poor old PM, who, let's be frank, was only unlucky enough to be holding this particular toxic parcel when the music stopped, is now finding his words of only a few hours preparation analysed forensically for any sign of deviation, hesitation or (some at least would hope) repetition.

This was a crisis decades in the making, years in the unravelling and months in the analysing. Why it should then have required only hours in the responding remains, as I say, a mystery.

I am not always the warmest supporter of the current Scottish Government but I do not think it is unfair to give them some credit for the different way they responded (for example) to the Gill Review of Scotland's Civil Justice system. This was a different area of public life which had also proved increasingly unfit for purpose but on the day Lord Gill delivered his equally reasoned and lengthy report, Kenny McAskill said no more than that the Scottish Government had received his recommendations; thanked him for his work and would respond in due course. As indeed they have (not always to my unconditional enthusiasm but that's another matter!)

Oh but had the Scottish Government been so wise on this occasion!

Press regulation has always been devolved. I've said before that a statutory, purely declaratory, appeal when the PCC declined to investigate or apply its own code (which remains the central problem here) was my "policy proposal" when I put my name forward for Labour's Panel of candidates in 1999. And Eck has been in power since 2007. On any day during that period he could have suggested a separate regulatory press regime for Scotland. Indeed, if he truly thought that the case for the same was "unarguable" (as he said today) then it's unclear who has been providing the counter-argument since May 2007. Or why, having not acted for five and a half years he suddenly has decided he must act in the course of an afternoon and on the basis of a report he didn't commission or, at the time of his statement at least, he could not possibly have read.

What is unarguable is that if the need for such a separate regime is unarguable, then, unarguably, the First Minister has fallen down on the job since 2007.

This is all just nonsense. A common UK wide system of press regulation could patently do the job for Scotland. Sure, our law relating to defamation and verbakl injury is (a bit) different  but, as recently as JUNE 2012 (!) in a legislative consent Memorandum relating to the otherwise English and Welsh Defamation Bill Kenny McAskill himself observed:

"8. Given that much  scientific and  academic research is done collaboratively and
without reference to national  borders, limiting these provisions to England and Wales
only could potentially inhibit constructive and robust scientific and academic exchange.
Extending these provisions to Scotland would  therefore  ensure parity of protection in
relation to these scientific and academic activities."

Now I appreciate that this might come as a surprise to someone mired in the Kailyard but so is much journalistic research. And Scotland would also benefit from parity of protection there.

With one exception, every tabloid newspaper published in Scotland is but the English version of the same product "with a kilt on", and even the exception is becoming less exceptional.

So why did the First Minister behave in the manner he did? As with so much of his recent activity (such as, and I do not make this up, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza) it had little or nothing to do with the issue in hand and everything to do with promoting (if you were being generous) the cause of Scottish Independence or (if you were less inclined to generosity) the self-aggrandisement of one A. Salmond.

Perhaps he imagines the day when, if the press step out of line, he will hit them over the head with his Silver Putter.

But, as with so much of what constitutes the mish-mash that now passes for Independence, highlighting the First Ministers demands in this area just demonstrates their absurdity. Even if Scotland was independent, English newspapers could hardly be banned here. (Hopefully at least!) And even if they were banned, some would surely be available on the black market or even over something called the internet. It wouldn't take long for somebody to conclude that the only sensible solution was common regulation.

As with so much else, not so much better together as only common sense together.

So let's wait and see what happens and if, genuinely, the regime proposed for the UK provides inadequate recourse for the victims of press excesses then let's see what we might do. But let's not kid ourselves that we can isolate ourselves from the much wider newspaper market in England. With or without Independence


  1. You say Scots law is (a bit) different, but isn't the issue that it's different at all? Let's say we all agree the Irish model is right for us, would you suggest that we get the Press Council of Ireland to handle it all for us?

    How would a UK wide press authority handle the Herald publishing Ryan Giggs' name when an England & Wales only super-injunction was in place?

  2. The comments about Alex Salmond having "fallen down on the job since 2007" because he didn't introduce a new system of press regulation amount to no more the usual blinkered nonsense that we would expect from one of the more rabid British nationalist propagandists. Ian Smart's conveniently selective memory elides the fact that the SNP was a minority administration until May 2011.

    He also "forgets" how the British Labour Party in Scotland joined forces with the Tories and Liberal Democrats at Holyrood in a campaign of wanton obstructionism that saw them vow to oppose any measure put forward by the then minority Scottish Government regardless of the interests of the people of Scotland.

    And Mr Smart-in-name-only blithely ignores the fact that the Leveson inquiry was just being launched as the current administration took power. What does he imagine would have been the response from himself and his fellow British nationalists if Salmond had proposed legislation before the proceedings even got under way?