I’ve got a bad feeling about Leveson

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.


23 thoughts on “I’ve got a bad feeling about Leveson

  1. Pingback: How can we legislate for Leveson without a McLeveson first? « A Burdz Eye View

  2. Pingback: Wings over Scotland | Occam’s Beard

  3. Yes it was irrational ! Grudging admiration all round and from Hugo Rifkind “Impressive” – the lack of tireless intense negative blogging must tell you something.

  4. Alex, Leveson and Jay all good pals now ! Your fears unfounded……

    AS will probably get a good report even in the Daily Mail for his defence of free speech!

  5. There are two entirely different angles to this. The first is what actually happens and the second is what is reported.

    On the former, you have nothing to fear because Alex Salmond has done nothing wrong – NOTHING. Even if he wanted to do a deal with Murdoch, he has nothing in his gift to trade. Murdoch did not get to where he is by doing deals with people who can offer him nothing.

    I hope Salmond will tell Leveson that he knew that dealing with Murdoch might be bad for his personal reputation but that his reputation is secondary to what is best for Scotland. If something is in Scotland’s interest then he will pursue it despite the political dangers to him personally.

    I consider this similar to the Megrahi release. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, so ultimately the issue is what, in his judgement, is best for Scotland. We should all know by now that whatever decisions are made, the opportunists in oppostion will try to spin it for their political purposes.

    Which brings me to the latter angle – what is reported. Here the Scottish media’s and Labour’s interests align. A chance to bash Murdoch and Salmond – manna from heaven.

    No matter that there is not a shred of evidence of wrong-doing on Salmond’s part. No matter that it is Labour and Tory politicians who regularly gorge on News International hospitality. No matter that a Labour PM’s wife threw birthday parties for Rebekah Brookes. Alex Salmond and Rupert Murdoch shared a cup of tea and a caramel wafer. Bang to rights and to hell with whether such a meeting might have had a benefit for Scotland.

    Labour has long been blinded by its hatred of Salmond. Now that he no longer supports it, Labour is also blinded by its hatred of Murdoch. Labour has willing allies in the Scottish media who have a vested interest in rubbishing Murdoch and who are generally ill-disposed to Salmond’s political objectives.

    So, you are right to worry Kate but only about what is reported.

    Leveson’s inquisitors have proven about as effective as a cat-flap in an elephant house (if I might borrow the phrase). Some of the rubbish that Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have been allowed to get away with almost unchallenged has been disgraceful but then, as someone below pointed out, Leveson is not putting anyone on trial.

    Ed Miliband says he wants plurality in the media. The fact that he thinks that one owner in control of a tabloid, a broadsheet and a sunday broadsheet is too much demonstrates his complete lack of business intelligence. Perhaps he imagines a world in which newspaper proprietors carve up the market equally and all run their publications at a loss just to ensure we have Ed’s defintion of plurality of the press.

    Ed’s and Labour’s problem is not the number of Murdoch’s titles but their popularity and, more importantly, that they are currently politically aligned with their opponents.

    The longer they try to press this, the worse it will turn out for Labour in the long run. I suspect there are many in the Labour Party that are very uncomfortable about how this is being handled but the short term satisfaction of giving Salmond and Murdoch a kicking will be too much to resist for their leaders.

    They would do well to remember the parable of the Gray man who would be King. But they won’t.

    • “There are two entirely different angles to this. The first is what actually happens and the second is what is reported.”

      Ain’t that the truth!

      • For example, courtesy of BBC Scotland’s Tim Reid, when signing off on his (frustratingly for him) anodyne report of proceedings:

        “But the First Minister failed to provide evidence to show that there was no deal done.”

        Perhaps he should concentrate on finding a shred of evidence to suggest there was a deal done. Or maybe he’d like Salmond to prove that there is no God instead, or no such thing as ghosts.

        Disgraceful behaviour.

    • Gary, I am just about to eat my words in today’s blogpost and have lifted your comment and inserted it into the text. It is too good, cogent and relevantly gets to the nub of the matter much more succinctly than I could. Doesn’t deserve to languish here.

  6. Not really sure if there is anything to the phone-hacking. Salmond’s relationship with NI is another matter. Bear in mind as well that while Salmond has no powers, he and his government have been arguing for economic powers to come north as well as regulatory powers in relation to broadcasting & media.

    It is entirely possible that Murdoch’s revenge on the Westminster villiage would be to see his newspapers campaign and win the referendum, while he sees an Independent Scotland set up as a low tax low regulation economy on the doorstep of rUK.

    Unlike Aiden, I suspect that more stringent press regulation is on the cards, which i am in two minds over. On the one hand, the press (inparticular the tabloids) have operated in a deeply immature fashion over the past couple of decades. Despite this we should have an independent uncensored press – which is diferent from the “free press” soundbite trotted out when people are on the defensive over… er… press freedoom.

  7. Be the gray man and keep the heid laddie, just answer the questions.

  8. Regardless of what actually transpires, we can get a flavour of what the unionist media’s coverage of Salmond’s appearance before Leveson will be by looking at the splenetic ranting of “Scottish” Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, Paul Martin. You will feel the need to have a hot shower after reading this. – http://bit.ly/LSCNVG

  9. I’m not sure there’ll be a “gotcha” moment here: there hasn’t really been for any of the other witnesses, apart from the awkward moment Alistair Brett (former Times lawyer) admitted to essentially misleading the High Court in the NightJack case.

    This isn’t a prosecution, it’s not adversarial. Witnesses may come across well or badly but, by and large, nobody blows up – it’s the wrong format for that. Like the other serving government ministers we’ve had so far (Cameron, Osborne, Cable, Hunt) he’ll have been well prepared for this. Even Jeremy Hunt managed not to actually go on fire, just slowly smolder and he’s up to his former advisors neck in it.

    I’d guess that the report also unlikely to be particularly critical of the wider political establishment in the past because they’ll be the people implementing it. I’d expect particularly relationships around the BSkyB bid to be criticised and a general admonishment to make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen again for the party political side of things.

  10. The First Minister will repeat his mantra ” It is my duty to do everything in the best interests of Scotland” whilst doing that head nodding thing, if asked, I’m fairly sure he’ll say he wasn’t hacked, he’s to clever for that.
    All in all I expect a damp squib, be good if I’m wrong though!

  11. ” If anyone in Scotland has been a victim of phone hacking, then surely Alex Salmond has?”

    Bear in mind that “phone hacking” is short for “listening to someone’s voicemail who hasn’t changed their PIN”.

  12. Another question which comes to mind;

    How important is Salmond to the “Yes Scotland” campaign? More important than winning independence?

    If it comes out that he was offering the Murdochs what he shouldn’t have, will the SNP decide that winning a yes vote isn’t as important as closing ranks to defend Salmond?

  13. So if my phone is hacked ,and you tell me to come clean, your an idiot.I have not done anything wrong the person who has done wrong is the person who hacked my phone if indeed it has happened. Watch out that jump to conclusion could land you in the water!
    One important factor is would you know if your phone has been hacked?

  14. Being rather stupid, if my phone is hacked and I don’t wish to report it/complain whatever; is that not my right? It certainly would be if I was a victim of an assault or does media interest overide my human rights. Mearly an observation but comment would be interesting.

  15. Pingback: I’ve got a bad feeling about Leveson & Salmond | YES for an Independent Scotland | Scoop.it

  16. Did you watch the last episode of the most recent series of Sherlock where Sherlock had to appear in court? On the way to court Watson said to Sherlock please don’t be a smart-arse. Sherlock said I’ll just be myself. He was. Didn’t turn out too well. For some reason that scene keeps floating through my head …..

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