I have a largely irrational sense of dread about the First Minister’s evidence session at the Leveson inquiry. Or rather, about how it could go very badly wrong.
Slotted in as supporting cast in a stellar political line-up, whatever transpires is unlikely to become a UK news story, but if Robert Jay QC manages to land a blow – or more – then we’ll be reading and hearing about it here in Scotland for days, if not weeks to come.
The session probably won’t lay bare how difficult it is for an SNP Government to get a fair hearing from a mostly hostile media in Scotland. Leveson won’t be interested in such details, at hearing how over the years, the SNP has had to work ridiculously hard to get its message across to the public and has done so, largely in spite of what is reported.
Further, Leveson is unlikely to trouble itself with matters Scottish pertaining to its remit, despite being given carte-blanche by the Scottish Government to do so. The inquiry is not that interested (though I’d be pleased to be proved wrong).
If we want to explore, understand and ultimately, address the unhealthy aspects of the relationships that exist among public agencies like the police, the media and the politicians in Scotland, then we need a McLeveson. The SNP might have been expected to have the appetite to do so, simply because its core values as a party are anti-establishment or at least, dis-establishment; that the party does not says something about how far it has travelled into the mainstream in recent years.
No, the two areas of potential difficulty for the First Minister have been well trailed: phone hacking and Murdoch.
His relationship with News International and in particular, Rupert and James Murdoch, is likely to be the focus of this evidence session, especially as he and one of his Special Advisors, Geoff Aberdein, have been mentioned in dispatches over the BSkyB takeover thing.
I’m not sure how and when Leveson decided its business was to focus on a failed media-business transaction which required government oversight, but that’s the problem when you establish an inquiry with a broad brush remit. It goes where the evidence takes it, and presumably, there is a purpose to its focus on the engagement between politicians, advisors and Sky bods that will be revealed when the report is written.
But we are where we are. And the trail has snared the First Minister, who will be scrutinised on emails which appear to show a willingness to advocate for a controversial take-over which would result in the same market dominance in Scotland as in the UK. It remains to be seen if the justification of protecting and promoting jobs impresses.
Leveson might care to explore what the First Minister’s locus was here, given that officially he had none. Which is where it could all get a bit uncomfortable, if the interrogators manage to join the dots between engagement with the Murdochs, favourable editorial coverage for the SNP in an election and offers to lobby on behalf of BSkyB.
While there is a significant body of distaste for the Murdoch empire and its particular style of news gathering and reporting, it should be borne in mind that lots of Scottish people subscribe to their products, buy their newspapers and work for their companies. Some will happily accept the FM’s assurances that he was acting in the Scottish interest.
But others, who came to an SNP vote after a lifetime of allegiance elsewhere, precisely because they thought the SNP offered something different and a higher principle base than most, might well feel somewhat disgruntled to discover that the First Minister is not much different from the rest.
And while it might make sense to everyone in the Scottish political village that parties will do what they can to secure favourable coverage for what they offer and do, the realisation that wining and dining the Murdochs in state accommodation is a key part of that process will simply add to many’s sense of alienation from the purpose and process of politics.
Then there’s the phone hacking. Having teased us mercilessly in the Holyrood Chamber, tomorrow we should find out if the First Minister’s phone has been hacked by journalists and newspapers, currently unknown.
Frankly, it will be a revelation only if Alex Salmond hasn’t been contacted by Operation Rubicon in this regard. He is the most important politician in the land and someone whom the media have sniffed around for years looking for something in his private life – and finding nothing worth reporting, more than incidentally. If anyone in Scotland has been a victim of phone hacking, then surely Alex Salmond has?
The what and when might well be illuminating, though because inquiries are ongoing, we are unlikely to have our interest sated with the lurid details. Which simply leaves the gossip and chatter channels open, which is debilitating and distracting from the real business of government at hand.
Why the First Minister’s parliamentary aide, Joan McAlpine MSP, thought it a good idea to open up this front by disclosing that her own phone had been hacked – via a media blog – has left many scratching their heads. Her political connection to him meant that the Opposition was always going to press for answers on his own experience, though it’s not clear that they know what they are trying to achieve by their efforts.
The detail of what might be revealed at Leveson is only part of my unease. There is also the law of averages. The First Minister has been at the top of his game and of Scottish politics for so long, the pessimist in me suggests that he is due a doing. That something will cause a monumental slip-up, something unexpected like this, and Leveson has the potential to be the thread to unravel the whole jersey.
There is also the small matter of how the First Minister goes about giving evidence. Few politicians are as good as Alex Salmond at getting the pitch right and portraying the appropriate mood. But that tends to be when he is in control. He could be in front of Leveson for an hour or more; he gets bored by detail, apparently; he can be tetchy when bored; and he will need more than his cheekie-chappie chuckle to see him through hard questions.
How it transpires also depends on the Leveson lawyers. Alex Salmond has spent decades getting the measure of those who would dismiss him as playing in the big boys’ playground. The slightest sense of the Inquiry treating the First Minister as a politician from the sticks, with less than the gravitas he has earned and deserves, and he has them.
If the inquiry treats him thus, he will emerge triumphant, though not necessarily unscathed nor with his reputation unsullied. Some of the questions about his behaviour in office will not have been dispelled.
Most importantly of all, the case for a separate Scottish inquiry into phone-hacking and relations between media, politicians and public bodies will remain.
There is nothing quite so fierce as a Scottish mammy defending and protecting her offspring – especially if they are boys. So god help all those who have it in for wee Geoff Aberdein this weekend.
Scottish Labour thinks it has a cunning plan to wound Alex Salmond over the Murdoch stuff by gunning for his Special Advisor, Geoff Aberdein. It worked at Westminster, after all. Following revelations at the Leveson inquiry about the extent of contact between Jeremy Hunt’s Special Advisor and the Murdoch Empire’s man over the BSkyB takeover bid, the poor wee SpAD was thrown to the political and media wolves in the hope that some fresh meat would sate their appetites. Not a chance, it simply whets them.
But the circumstances are different in Scotland. The reason Hunt is in the firing line, and the reason his special advisor had to go, is because he was supposed to be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity on this takeover bid. They are in the mire because they have a clear and unequivocal locus in the matter: he is the one responsible for taking the decision and therefore should have been far more circumspect about the extent of dealings with one of the bidders. The First Minister had no such direct link. His special advisor was only offering a few sweet nothings whispered in the Culture Secretary’s ear. Lame justification or not – the First Minister was only doing his job: standing up for what he perceived to be in Scotland’s interests in terms of jobs. An awful lot of Scots will shrug and wonder what the problem is.
Mine might be a Murdoch-free household but I’m a rare commodity in Scotland. Last year, over 800,000 Scots read the Scottish Sun, day in day out. Over 300,000 bought it on a daily basis, 20,000 read the Times, 50,000 read it on a Sunday and over 40,000 watch Sky TV, email on Sky and make phone calls thanks to Sky. The launch of the Sun on Sunday? Achieving a similar readership to its defunct predecessor, the News of the World, of nearly 250,000. Has anything in the past week caused any of them to change their reading or subscription habits? I doubt it.
Scottish Labour’s tactics show up the paucity of political nous in the party. They’ve got so caught up in Operation Get Salmond that they’ve forgotten to think through the details and the increasingly personalised nature of the attacks are counter-intuitive.
I don’t think I’ve ever met Geoff Aberdein nor had any dealings with him. But thon wee earnest face staring out at us from all our Sunday blatts this morning? Bless. Maternal instincts have been churned all round the country, at Labour’s expense. And if attacking a young man who looks like he still takes his washing home every weekend wasn’t bad enough, the party has dragged Alex Salmond’s family into the row.
A “nyaff on the internet” might not be entirely within Labour’s control but the dissembling on who is responsible for comments on a Facebook group that supports Labour ignores what ordinary folk will take from the incident. A young Labour supporter thought it funny to wish death on Alex Salmond’s 90 year old father. The paltry response from official Scottish Labour sources indicate just how off-kilter the party’s political antennae are.
Worse is the briefing going on about the First Minister’s late withdrawal from BBC Question Time on Thursday. Apparently, Labour doesn’t believe that having a family funeral to go to is a good enough excuse. It reckons that he could have gone from Scotland to Romford in Essex for filming early on Thursday evening and got back to Kirkcaldy in time for the funeral of his aunt on Friday morning. The inference is that Salmond used the family bereavement to avoid a grilling on the Murdoch stuff on UK television.
I’m astounded that Labour is allowing this to be cast around. Is its staff team populated by androids? Do they think that this plays well with the public? Has it learned nothing since 2011?
Apparently not. Scottish Labour had a great opportunity to play this Murdoch business well. But by choosing to play the man and not the ball, they have not made a single shot on target. The party appears blinded by emotion – what dominated its pitch in the last week was its visceral and irrational hatred of Alex Salmond. The man as much as the First Minister. He might be the ultimate Marmite politician but bringing his family into things is playing in the rough.
The other dominant feature was the barely restrained anger at Salmond and the SNP having stolen its electoral birthright. Still.
Stephen Noon’s analysis that what plays to the political galleries sits rather more uncomfortably with the public is spot on. Personalising things to this extent ignores the salient fact that a majority of those who voted last 2011 chose this man and this party to lead their country. Attack him in this way and Labour is indirectly attacking the voters.
Trying to get folk sacked, allowing supporters to denigrate family members, attacking Alex Salmond for choosing family over politics: Scottish Labour is grubbing around in the gutter and it smacks of desperation.
I don’t like how the SNP has been cosying up to News International, nor how Alex Salmond is big chums with Rupert Murdoch these days.
And I don’t like how many SNP members/supporters appear to be falling into line and accepting this. Either as an unalloyed good or as an inevitable necessity in the bid to win hearts and minds in the independence referendum.
For years, the mainstream media has bashed the Nats, pillorying the SNP, belittling its core belief, and on occasion, spreading a miasma of lies about the party’s motives and its policies. Decades have seen the party under siege in a foxhole, being battered by the bazookas and artillery of the Unionist parties, their cheerleaders and a host of media outlets. The venom deployed, on occasion, has been shocking.
Despite all this, by its own efforts, the SNP made inroads into the public consciousness. It worked out how to circumvent the media, and to play it at its own game. A motivated ground corps, some strong messaging and policy commitments, a decent campaigning tool, lots of heart, a ton of slog and the breakthrough was made. Admittedly, the malaise in the Labour party and its incompetence and complacency contributed, but the SNP can rightly claim that its success is largely its own.
Even after 2007, it found few friends and could rely on even fewer favours. Right up to the last gasp in the election campaign, newspapers across the land worked hard to give Labour the space to make its pitch. Only when it was clear that the early polls had forecast a false return to form and that the SNP would hold on to power, did they come out in the party’s favour. Some failed even to do that, maintaining a studious and dishonest neutrality.
Now the SNP is the only political show in town. Consequently, institutions and establishment figures which previously crossed the street to avoid the party are queueing up to pay homage in the court of King Alex. And with the prize of independence close at hand, it is understandable that the party and the leadership, in particular, might want to acquire all the levers it might need. That includes a big newspaper with a big readership. The end justifies the means, seems to be the mantra.
Sorry it doesn’t.
Today’s revelations at the Leveson inquiry about the scale and the extent of the rottenness at the heart of the Murdoch operation were eye-watering. Bribery was a commonplace, if the Deputy Assistant Commissioner in charge of the phone-hacking investigations, is to be believed. And why wouldn’t we?
Just as bad, if not worse, is the fact that illegal payments were being made to a range of corrupt public officials. Not to lay bare appalling practice or criminality, but to provide tittle-tattle which breached – flagrantly – people’s private lives. All for the delectation of the masses. Joe Jackson never seemed so appropriate.
This used to be bread and butter to the SNP. What better argument for independence and the opportunity to create a whiter, brighter Scotland, one that embraces a different culture and sets higher standards for public life, could there be than the graft currently being unmasked at the centre of institutional UK? Who wants to remain part of a system which doesn’t just tolerate such activity but aids and abets it?
But the SNP and the Scottish Government cannot point the finger, not when it is cultivating a special arrangement with the Emperor’s Caledonian chattels. Yesterday’s splash on the date of the referendum in the launch edition of the Scottish Sunday currant bun might have been an exclusive announcement or a leak or a speculative punt. The First Minister might have attempted to downplay the announcement, to protest. But not too much.
There is, after all, the whiff of an endorsement for a yes vote in the air. All those come hither tweets from Rupert Murdoch suggest it. Far be it for me to question the man’s motives, but could it be that he sees an opportunity to expand his global media empire in an open source Scotland? If doors are slamming shut on him all around London, would independence enable him to suprise them through the back door?
I really hope not.
The last week has reminded me of the power inherent in good quality print journalism: death in the line of duty makes you consider why some are driven to deliver the news, to tell the untold stories, to give people a voice. And what purpose it serves.
I’d like to think an independent Scotland could offer a blank page and a fresh start in media terms; to create an environment that allows bona fide news gathering and story telling to flourish; which encourages a wider view of the world and allows for the sort of writing that takes you to faraway places and gives you a better understanding of our sense of place in the global village. Heck, there’s room too for the couthy, the gossipy, the frothy and the frivolous – so long as it’s squeaky clean. It takes all sorts after all.
But we’ll get none of that if Murdoch is given free rein in return for favours owed. Indeed, I see as many problems as potential benefits from being too tightly thirled to News International in the months ahead. For every vote gained, how many might be lost? I doubt I’m the only Scot with their stomach churned by the shenanigans unfolding.
I’m dismayed that not more SNP and independence-supporting voices are speaking out against this shotgun marriage, but I’m also fairly sure that I’m not the only one feeling uneasy and queasy about it all.
Could there be more news on this soon? I’d like to think so.