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.