For a while there I thought the SNP would say nothing on the News of the World and broader News International scandal. I must admit given the protracted delay in any official party line as fortress Wapping was breached I wondered if they were perhaps too shame-faced to comment after the ringing endorsements from News International papers, so carefully cultivated over recent years (on which see here and here). But lo, come Saturday evening as I was returning home from a period away it became apparent that Alex Salmond, the First Minister, had spoken.
“What has surfaced this week is the huge controversy over the total, abject failure to regulate the press in any effective way. We now know that the information commissioner presented evidence in November 2006 covering our major publications – thousands of instances of potential breaches of the law – and yet the Westminster government did absolutely nothing to bring the range of houses into order.”
The line was parroted today by Pete Wishart MP, the SNP culture and media spokesman at Westminster, in questions to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary on phone hacking – and Salmond’s intervention has been welcomed by some bloggers.
Let us though examine Salmond’s statement.
“We now know that the information commissioner presented evidence in November 2006 covering our major publications”
That we do. The reports are on-line in handy readable PDF form for passing politicians, political advisers, journalists or interested members of the public. I blogged about the Information Commissioner reports with details of the top 20 publications paying for illegally obtained information from the one private investigator considered in the Operation Motorman reports earlier this year. I wrote to The Observer about it. I was (and remain) astonished that – sterling work from Iain Hepburn aside - no-one seemed that interested in it (and even now as the revelations that blagging appears to have led to revelations about Gordon Brown and his family’s personal information (including medical records) the full implications of Motorman and what it said about the endemic problems within the UK press are largely ignored in the pursuit of News International). The complicity of the newspapers in avoiding reporting the story was unsurprising given that News International, Associated Newspapers, the Express, and the Guardian Media Group were all identified as having acquired illegally obtained personal data from this private investigator. But there was silence from the politicians too. In this the record of the SNP is as bad (if not worse) than that of the other parties. Between the publication of the reports in 2006 and Saturday a google search of the SNP website (which hosts an archive of press releases from the party) the SNP said nothing about press regulation. There is nothing about Operation Motorman. And their concern media regulation is primarily worried about Scottish broadcasting and a separate Scottish channel. So 5 years on, Salmond is even later than everyone else to the something must be done about Operation Motorman party.
But Salmond goes on to use his statement to complain about Westminster. Despite his party having shown no interest in the topic, with no pressure for press regulation at Westminster, not even – so far as my searching of Hansard can determine – a written question on the topic (which would be the easiest way for them to raise the topic given the constraints on parliamentary time faced by the small parties at Westminster), this is according to Mr Salmond all Westminster’s fault.
“the Westminster government did absolutely nothing to bring the range of houses into order”
That’s true, and I wish that Westminster had done something about it.
But Samond’s “blame Westminster” line doesn’t wash in this area.
Salmond has been the First Minister of Scotland for the past 4 and a bit years. The government he has led, and leads, can act within the powers set out by the Scotland Act 1998. At times the government has suggested legislation that some of us feel push the boundaries of legislative competence. So proposing to act outwith competence does not usually hamper Mr Salmond and his party. However, on this topic press regulation is firmly within the competence of the Scottish Parliament.
The issues on which the Scottish Parliament (and Scottish government) cannot act are broadly set out in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, which includes a reservation in relation to certain topics regarding culture and the media in Head K. The reservations include broadcasting, public lending right, a government indemnity scheme, and tax related transfers of national heritage. The press and regulation of the press does not appear in Head K. Regulation of the press does not appear anywhere in Schedule 5. This is a devolved topic. And if the SNP government had the will to do anything about the potential implications of press behaviour in Scotland after Operation Motorman they – and not Westminster – could have acted. In fact if Westminster had acted across the Uk the Scottish Parliament would have required to pass a Sewel motion to assent to Westminster dealing with devolved territory.
Salmond and the SNP have failed, as all politicians and political parties have failed, to take press regulation seriously after the Operation Motorman reports. The failure even to comment over the past five years, and to try – even now – to pass the buck to Westminster, is shameful.
Contrary to the posturing of the First Minister this is not just a Westminster problem. This is also a Holyrood problem. And in failing to take seriously the Guardian stories on phone hacking, and the Information Commissioner’s reports on Operation Motorman this has been a shameful abrogation of responsibility for the whole of our political class.