The SNP Government kept pretty schtum as the News of the World story broke and grew mid-week. The lack of reaction and intervention was intriguing, not least because the SNP had been endorsed by both the Scottish Sun and the News of the World in the recent Scottish elections. Had Salmond supped with the devil and therefore, needed to keep his head down (as the Sunday Herald seemed to suggest today)? Was there a big scandal waiting in the wings? You could almost hear the sharpening of pencils at media outlets around Scotland.
But just as the silence was becoming deafening, Alex Salmond broke his cover and issued a statement on Friday, responding to the Prime Minister’s announcement of a public inquiry into phone hacking. The First Minister may have arrived late but his tack is spot on. Quoting the Motorman list and the What Price Privacy Now? reports compiled by the Information Commissioner in 2006, he urged the inquiry to cast the widest possible net. (And in acknowledging that I too have come rather late to this party, it is gratifying to know that two intrepid bloggers, Love and Garbage and Iain Hepburn were hot on the trail of this scandal months ago, but no one paid attention. Sadly.)
In doing so, the First Minister played an all-too familiar reserved-devolved card, calling for the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be consulted on the scope of the inquiry, citing the diverse range of media outlets across the UK as the necessary driver for this. He’s right, of course, but it does make for a rather wearisome, easy hit.
In focusing on the obvious London axis, the First Minister has missed a more important one, one that was outlined by the Information Commissioner in Scotland on Newsnight Scotland earlier this week. In an otherwise turgid interview, Mr Macdonald dropped a wee bomb into the discourse. He advised that the Assistant Commissioner for Scotland has no powers to refer breaches of data protection to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration of prosecution. Those powers rest solely with the UK office, one presumes as a result of the law establishing the role of the Information Commissioner. So even if wrongdoing was uncovered by the Commissioner or any other body in relation to data protection laws in Scotland, no prosecution could follow, in either a devolved area – say breach of the law by a health board – or on a reserved one – perhaps by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Is the issue such that the “local” office in Scotland cannot make referrals but that the parent office at UK level can? If yes, this means that any data breaches uncovered by an inquiry into the conduct of the press could be referred to the Procurator Fiscal, albeit by the UK Information Commissioner (assuming, of course he is not swamped by workload in his own patch). Or is it that there is no locus at all in Scotland for prosecution of data protection breaches, requiring them all to be handled by courts south of the border? One hopes that someone is researching the matter and preparing to brief the First Minister expeditiously – and I’d be mighty grateful if the likes of Love and Garbage or Lallands Peat Worrier could step in and rescue me from my rather rusty knowledge of the law.
Whatever the ins and outs of the precise situation, you can see how this rather astonishing situation gives the First Minister a much bigger goalmouth to aim at, particularly given the current miasma enveloping the media. The recent stushie over the UK Supreme Court might well pale into insignificance if we find that there have been privacy breaches by Scottish newspapers that we can do very little about. At least two were cited by the Motorman report.
As if this wasn’t enough, all weekend, we’ve had earnest, passionately written articles from journalists downplaying the need for tighter regulation, both here in Scotland and elsewhere. There is a risk that the focus of our attention following the demise of the News of the World becomes far too narrow. If the ding-dong now becomes about self or government or some form of independent regulation of the press in the UK, then we will have been led down a cul-de-sac. The case – or otherwise – for an end to press self-regulation is only one part of the equation, and is largely, at this stage, a red herring.
But focusing on this serves the other press barons and scribes well. Ditto it all being about Murdoch. Which is not to say this is not well-deserved and not before time. But there are more miscreants and lawbreakers at large than Murdoch and his minions. Alex Salmond is right to call for all of them to be investigated, and for the whole culture to be examined thoroughly. It is unlikely to be edifying but it is necessary if our press is to have a fighting chance of survival.
We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to clean up the worst excesses of journalistic practice, to determine a new ownership regime that is accountable and transparent, and to ensure that we have newspapers that are fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The inquiry will be painful but it has to be. And it will only succeed without the kind of political partisanship that was on display this weekend from the other parties in Scotland. Moreover, it must involve the public – we what buys these blatts for our titillation – taking a long hard look at itself and its own morals. Without demand, there is no supply, though admittedly the relationship between newspaper and audience is more complex than that.
In short, we need, as the man said, an inquiry into “the ethics and conduct of the press” and everything that goes with it. It’s the only way that in the future, we’ll have all the news that’s fit to print.