I find Alex Salmond’s ambition to strengthen Scottish press regulation in the form of a ‘McLeveson’ law slighty surreal. Because in my view the real challenge facing Scottish newspapers is not their reckless risk taking but their tendency to be risk averse.
It is a trait which is depriving readers of the sort of newspapers they want to read – which explains the relentless decline in circulations – but more importantly is depriving society of the sort of checks and balances vital to a healthy democracy.
As I have written before, you do not have to venture far off the well-trodden PR path to find mysteries, potential scandals and legitimate public interest questions abandoned in the undergrowth.
Much of this material is the sort of stuff which inspired many of those journalists reared on films like ‘All the President’s Men’ to get into this profession in the first place.
Now The Drum is not really in the business of holding the political classes to account. But even we can’t help stubbing our toe on the odd forgotten issue lying hidden in the long grass. Very often it’s the sort of stuff that would have been picked up by the old investigation teams of the past who once tended our public interest landscape.
A few examples spring to mind. The story of former newspaper executive Steve Sampson for example. He was the man who persuaded Scottish Enterprise to invest £1m in his start up Talent Nation only to be accused of transferring much of this cash into his own personal account shortly afterwards, leaving staff unpaid, a bankrupt business and much acrimony behind. Since other investors in Talent Nation – which was placed into liquidation by Scottish Enterprise - included Premier League football players and other sports stars you would have expected to see this story appear across the Scottish press, despite Sampson's denials that he had done anything wrong. Apart from in The Drum, it hardly merited a mention elsewhere.
Another example of where the Scottish media were surprisingly mute was in reporting the resignation of high-flying Glasgow City Council leader, Steven Purcell back in 2010.
He shocked the political establishing by suddenly resigning – citing a nervous breakdown.
But it wasn’t long before rumours of drug abuse and allegations of patronage surfaced, fuelled by the fact that he received a visit from police warning him of potential blackmail.
To put this in context, it is the equivalent of the career of Boris Johnson suddenly going up in a puff of cocaine; Purcell was seen as a potential Scottish First Minister.
The saga was covered unconvincingly. The Herald, for example, initially carried surprisingly little comment about the scandal.
Perhaps Purcell was simply really good at crisis PR. And he certainly had some good advisers. They included Jack Irvine – once an editor of The Scottish Sun (and colleague of Steve Sampson) - who is now seen as a Scottish Max Clifford. His business is called Media House.
Meanwhile he received legal advice from Irvine’s friend and business associate Peter Watson of Levy & McRae (who also at one stage advised Steve Sampson).
Levy & McRae were certainly well placed to advise on media matters. His team also worked (and still does) for many newspapers including the Herald, advising them on what could and could not, be published.
The arrangement struck The Drum as strange, which is why we wrote to every newspaper which was represented by Levy & McRae asking if they thought that the set up – where they were running stories on somebody also represented by the firm – might add up to a conflict of interest.
The Sunday Herald eventually carried a full page editorial which read: “There have been hints that some Scottish newspapers have pulled their punches because editors have been too close to Steven Purcell or worse have been cowed in submission by Peter Watson and PR firm Media House.”
Herald MD Tim Blott confirmed: “We are currently reviewing our relationship with Levy & McRae in the light about our editors’ concerns about any current or future conflict of interests.”
Adding impetus to this process was the fact that one arm of Levy & McRae had demanded a right of reply for a piece another arm of the firm had cleared for publication in a Herald title.
However, despite the public posturing the group re-appointed Levy & McRae, albeit with a new set of safeguards.
Levy & McRae were also well placed to advise Purcell on criminal law. Strathclyde Police, which investigated the Purcell resignation, sought advice from the Crown Office on how to proceed.
Watson acts for the Strathclyde Police Federation and has advised the Crown Office and its head honcho the Lord Advocate in the past.
The Drum has first-hand experience of this, because in 2009 the then Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, instructed Levy & McRae to take action against our company.
Our then sister title The Firm had published allegations that while Angiolini was Procurator Fiscal in Aberdeen, her office had failed to handle an investigation into an alleged paedophile ring properly.
In the end she dropped her defamation claim and a referral to the Press Complaints Commission was settled without an adjudication being made.
In the aftermath The Drum wanted to find out who had paid for her action – because in a defamation case the only recourse an individual can hope for is compensation which would be paid to them personally.
So did she pay her own bills? As the Lord Advocate she employs more lawyers than anybody else in Scotland, so you would have thought she would have been able to get advice for free. Or did the Government pay for outsourcing this to a private firm?
And there was another point too. The victim at the heart of the original allegations – a Down Syndrome child – received £15,000 as part of the criminal compensation scheme. Angiolini’s costs could have amounted to more than this. So did she spend more public money defending her reputation than this young girl received for being raped?
Of course there is also a bigger picture here. If a government starts using its vast resource to sue journalists it will inevitably compromise the ability of media to do its jobs and call politicians and their political appointees to account.
That was why we lodged a Freedom of Information Request with the Crown Office. And I suspect it was also why it was simply denied. To this day we do not know who footed Angiolini’s bill.
Now in itself none of this is hard evidence of wrongdoing. But it is evidence of all the untold stories lying submerged in the murk of Scottish public life. At the moment it is, in my view, short sighted commercial pressures that are stopping media owners doing their jobs. But in the future they could be further muzzled by McLeveson.
I have to say the composition of the Leveson advisory panel the Scottish Government are proposing doesn’t fill me with confidence.
It includes one Peter Watson of Levy & McRae. Perhaps it might adopt a paragraph the firm had on its website as its credo: “With a low profile, we aim to keep clients off the front page and take swift and effective action where required. Being networked at the highest levels and having access to major decision makers is key to our success.”
Levy & McRae have been in touch on behalf of Elish Angiolini asking me to set the record straight in one important respect; which I am happy to do. Originally I wrote that the Press Complaints Commission rejected her complaint against The Firm. In actual fact they never adjudicated on the matter as The Firm and Levy & McRrae reached an agreement (which involved no admission of liability on The Firm’s part and both sides paid their own costs). It was after this that The Drum lodged its Freedom of Information request to find out if Angiolini had received a form of ‘Scottish Legal Aid’ to cover her costs. Our report on this matter led to another Press Complaints Commission referral by Levy & McRae which was ultimately rejected. I have amended the above blog accordingly. So sorry Elish, we all make the odd mistakes from time to time.
Gordon Young is editor of The Drum