John McLellan, former editor of The Scotsman and now communications director for The Scottish Conservative Party, shared his thoughts on Scottish independence and how the Leveson inquiry will affect the press at a panel debate held by The Drum.
Here is McLellan's opening address in full:
I think that it is unlikely that Scotland will be independent in two years’ time. In fact I think there are grave doubts as to whether there will even be a vote for a referendum in two years’ time, never mind a vote for independence.
Whether it is Devo Max or any other form of devolution, the issues around press regulations in Scotland remain the same. The scales of how much power the Holyrood Parliament has have no bearing on whether or not there should be a separate Scottish press regulator or we remain regulated by the body currently headquartered in the city of London.
The question is not whether press regulation as we know it is has failed Scotland in particular, but whether it has in general across the UK. In my opinion, whether you think the Press Complaints Commission has been a success or a failure, it has been a success or a failure equally north and south of the border. This is not a nationalist issue. It is a matter of whether or not the press regulator per se has been effective or not. Not as far as phone hacking is concerned: clearly it is a major scandal. I have not heard anybody argue that it wasn’t. The truth also of the phone hacking scandal was that it was unmitigated criminality on industrial scale where people were wilfully, over a long period of time, breaking the law.
The funny thing about people who wilfully, over a long period of time, in an organised fashion, break the law is that they tend not to like the public to know that they are breaking the law and the job, as far as I can see, in detecting the law-breaking falls upon the police. Now whether the previous PCC regime, or the new regime that will undoubtedly come into force in the near future, would have uncovered criminality of that scale is a very difficult point to prove.
Some might view that even the souped up press regulation regime that is about to come in would have had difficulty detecting the kind of criminality that was going on. Indeed it was really only once the police were involved that the scale of what was going on at the News of the World was uncovered. Of course, it was uncovered by the police; it wasn’t, as far as the public is concerned, uncovered when the two people went to jail for what they were up to.
The levels of activity that we now know was taking place only came about because a newspaper (The Guardian) revealed it, because for reasons best known to themselves the police moved onto other things. There are many reasons for that – the unit investigating phone hacking had a lot of other things on its plate because of anti-terrorism and decided that the job was done with two people going to jail and letting them move on. As we know now, the scale of this was something that did not warrant mopping up and moving on. It warranted an investigation and it is a good thing that that investigation is on-going. The problem therefore is whether the Leveson Inquiry is really pointing itself in the right place. As time moves on, the police will become the real focus for this as opposed to the press and we know the relationship between the man who is now my boss (David Cameron) and the press has come under scrutiny and I’m not sure that is something that was predicted when the inquiry was first announced.
What we have had has been a very effective complaints service. It hasn’t been a regulator. As David Punt who is now in charge of the PCC said, people criticise the PCC for failing to be a regulator. He argues that it was never a regulator all along, but a complaints service, and if we want to find out whether self-regulation can work, we should try it.
What we have about to take place is the transition of the PCC into a regulator with what the public have demanded it have: teeth. It will have a new investigations unit, it will have a compliance unit, it will probably have in exceptional circumstances the ability to fine newspapers for systematic abuses. I don’t think that it will necessarily remove abuses, and even the Lord Chief Justice recently said that on occasion breaking the law is a consequence of a free and robust press. If we look back to the revelations of the MPs expenses, was it right that the Telegraph broke the law in order to reveal what we know now? There is no question that they did the right thing and indeed The Times is probably kicking itself having had the opportunity to reveal the scandal, but took the decision not to publish on the basis that it was receiving stolen goods.
Has the PPC failed in a Scottish context? In my experience the PCC deals as effectively with complaints in Scotland as it does with them south of the border. So as we argue whether there should be a separate PCC for Scotland, I think first and foremost, let’s see what happens with press regulation over the coming months because the landscape is about to change dramatically.
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