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4 December 2012

Leveson Report

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on the Leveson report.

I ask members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now. I note that Ruth Davidson is not in the chamber.

14:51
... ... ...
15:45

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):
The word “sensitive” has occurred a number of times in the debate. Harper’s Weekly said of Abraham Lincoln that he was a

“Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper”

and so on. Interestingly, a hundred years ago, Harper’s Weekly closed for business and today Abe Lincoln is on the $5 bill. Time sometimes provides the remedy but mostly it does not.

In a number of instances, I find what the media do—with my heart, my head, my whole being—utterly repugnant. In the 1950s, around the family dinner table, my parents still talked about the fact that in the 1930s, the proprietor of the Daily Mail required his paper to support the British Union of Fascists. In 1964, when the News Chronicle, which my mother read, was taken over by the Daily Mail, it was immediately replaced in our house by The Courier. The Mail would not come into our house.

I may find it utterly repugnant—and others may join me—that a mainstream paper should adopt such political positions, but nonetheless I absolutely defend the right of the Daily Mail and any other publication to take actions of their choice that are within the law. A diverse media, just like democracy, means respecting the rights of those with whom we may fundamentally disagree.

Like other politicians—clearly, that includes Johann Lamont—I have to get the message across about what I am doing to as many people as possible. I have to persuade and inform. I have to communicate. Our media—our newspapers—are an important part of that. I have even visited the Daily Mail office upstairs from time to time and I have been successful in getting it to take stories from me. I have benefited from that process of proper engagement.

I visit—as I am sure other MSPs do—all the editors of my local newspapers, my local radio stations and the other broadcast media that come into my constituency to see what they want from me; to seek to influence the filters that they will apply to what I say; and to assess the support that they are prepared to give to the positions that I take. That is no surprise—it is normal business.

However, legal protections are there to help our media hold us to account when to account we should be held. With that comes a concomitant responsibility not simply to obey the law—that is the duty of every citizen—but to behave in a way that is proportionate. We who are in politics often feel ill-served and ill-treated by the media but we have the corporate strength of our political allies, the parties of which we are members, to fight back.

Others simply do not have that power. That is the essence of what Leveson seeks underpinning for. Too many people in the media have crossed the boundary into illegality when they have sought information. Even more to the point, too many of them have parlayed away the rights of private citizens for profit, not because of public interest. On that basis I welcome Johann Lamont’s remarks in relation to Milly Dowler, for example. I cannot do anything but agree with what she said.

The media have in their hands, when they get something wrong, the opportunity to correct it. As we heard from Mark McDonald, such retractions are too often grudging, inadequate and in no proportion whatsoever to the original error. The Press Complaints Commission has a fine set of principles and operating standards but, in practice, it seldom rises to meet the need and it more often falls to the level of industry preference.

I guess that no one understands the print media better than the print media itself, so self-regulation could be reasonable, if properly delivered. However, the present circumstances do not show self-regulation in a good light or show that it is operating adequately.

With the new PCC or whatever body or bodies—there could even be multiple bodies south of the border; I cannot discount that, as I do not know what will happen—we need legal underpinnings to incentivise and to penalise, when necessary. That is important.

We have heard about the legal framework in Ireland. We know that that allows a free press and protects citizens. We can draw on the knowledge and understanding there when we look at what we require here.

Each legal jurisdiction will need underpinnings that are specific to local law, but let us not take an early position on how we achieve that. The principles and practices of a new independent PCC can be easily encompassed into one package that could cover the Republic of Ireland and the whole British Isles.

I conclude by doing something that I do not often do: I quote the bible. Perhaps the media should tak tent of Thessalonians:

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

Let each and every one of us try that one for size.

15:51

Stewart Stevenson
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