There’s one of those interminable Facebook requests doing the rounds, calling for the devolution of broadcast standards to Scotland. Although it has the backing of aggrieved Nats, I’m not sure it enjoys the support of official SNP channels, given that the Scottish Government was so keen to offload its devolved responsibility and power to investigate press standards, practices and ethics to the Leveson inquiry.
This decision might have made sense at the time but hastily taken, it has the potential to haunt the Scottish Government and in particular, the First Minister. Moreover, given that Operation Rubicon, the Strathclyde police investigation into phone-hacking, is only just starting to reach low-hanging fruit, we may end up with a Scottish inquiry yet. Calls for one might prove hard to resist, no matter how hard the Scottish Government tries.
Leveson was effectively granted sway over a breathtaking range of devolved matters. Each and every module has an interest in and potential consequences for Scotland. Thus, it can look at instances of phone-hacking in Scotland and other aspects of the relationship between the Scottish press and the Scottish public; it can examine the relationship between the Scottish press and the Scottish police, as well as that between the Scottish press and Scottish politicians; and it can recommend more effective policy and regulation of the Scottish press. Couched like this, Leveson has the potential to sweep a high-powered beam into key aspects of Scottish public and political life.
You would think then, that key players in Scotland might want to engage, fully and seriously with the Leveson inquiry and ensure it has the information and evidence it needs to conduct a proper scrutiny of all things Scottish. Not at all.
Few people who suspected they were victims of phone-hacking in Scotland have bothered to make written submissions. Including Joan McAlpine MSP and Tommy Sheridan, despite both making very public declarations in this vein.
Only Strathclyde Police appears to have considered it had insight to share with Leveson on the nature of its relationship with the media. No other police force could think of anything useful to share with Leveson, not even Dumfries and Galloway police which might have a few things it wanted to get off its chest with regard to Lockerbie.
Few titles, owners or journalists in Scotland bothered to posit any written evidence, despite the swirl of very serious allegations about the ethical practices of some of their craft threatening to subsume the reputation of the whole industry. Here as much as there. Hat tips then to the Herald, to Magnus Linklater and especially to John McLellan, who provides detailed, honest and heartfelt testimony. But nothing from any of the DC Thomson titles or editors and zilch from the Daily Record, despite it being specifically named in the Motorman report as having been a recipient of allegedly criminally-obtained information from a private investigator.
Not a single Scottish Parliament politician, either present or retired, has bothered to submit evidence on any of the modules covered by Leveson, nor specifically on their own experience at the hands of the Scottish press. Neither Alex Salmond nor Jack McConnell have submitted anything in writing, yet a slew of senior current and former Westminster politicians have.
You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that the First Minister’s appearance before Leveson on Wednesday is a formality, his relationship with the Murdochs aside. But despite very little of substance being entered into evidence pertaining to Operation Rubicon or any Scottish matter relating to any aspect of the Leveson inquiry, there is nothing to prevent the Leveson lawyers grilling Alex Salmond on anything within its remit. The First Minister, did in effect, enable this when he welcomed the announcement of the inquiry in 2011.
If Leveson was willing to extend its long arm into the deepest pockets of its purpose, we might worry that the First Minister could be in for a wringing.
He could be asked about any aspect of the press’s relationship with politicians in Scotland; he might be quizzed about Scotland the Village – and might be inclined to blow the gaffe on how the establishment in Scotland conspires to concentrate power and influence in very few hands, if that might not risk political opprobrium; he might be asked to comment on the inconsistencies inherent in the written submissions from the Herald and Rob Shorthouse, Head of Communications at Strathclyde Police, on how business is conducted and information is shared; and he might be expected to explain why his government has refused to look at press standards or consider regulation, despite having devolved power to do so.
But I doubt it.
Leveson isn’t all that interested in what goes on beyond its metropolitan gaze. Despite a promising start, the inquiry has fallen into the trap of so many before it, developing a London-centric and political establishment focus which by definition, excludes and switches everyone else off.
Moreover, the inquiry’s obsession with all things Murdoch has rather blown it off course. The BSkyB takeover negotations and discourse might provide the opportunity for the Leveson lawyers and assessors to display their forensic skills, and it might yet bring down a Minister, but it is not entirely clear what it tells us about the state of relations between politicians (plural), the press (plural) and the police (plural). Mission appears to have crept.
And yet, this is what might well capture the First Minister. He will be cross-examined on all the testimony laid before Leveson concerning his dealings with the Murdoch empire. It will be riveting, though not necessarily edifying for his most ardent supporters.
Will it tell us anything about the extent of nefarious practices involving the press, public and the police in Scotland? Will it dent the First Minister’s political fortunes, as Labour hopes? Will we learn anything of any significance? My views on all this follow in part two tomorrow.