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Why the Scottish national press is so special

In the 1950s and 1960s, journalism was terribly staid by today's standards.

Speeches of national and local politicians were reported at great length with little comment or interpretation.

Now even leading politicians such as the prime minister or first minister don't have their words reported at any length. Commentators, sketch writers and analysts are often given much more space or air time.

At local level, council meetings, tribunals, presbytery meetings, planning inquiries and the like were once reported at length. Now such meetings are routinely ignored. There is the danger of a democratic deficit here.

If we go back 30, 40 or even 60 years, there were only two basic routes into journalism. You left school, joined a local paper and worked your way up, or, if you were a graduate, you could get a job on a bigger paper, but still had to learn the basics of reporting.

I went to the former Thomson Newspapers journalism training school in Newcastle for almost a year to learn the basics. There was little or no discussion of ethics. The one golden rule was accuracy: check your facts, quote people accurately.

Nowadays comment is much more respected and prevalent. There's nothing wrong with that, but hard news reporting is and should remain the bedrock.

I don't want to be too starry-eyed about the past. Ethical standards were possibly higher but there was far too much deference in papers and broadcasting. Things are more complicated now, mainly because of the electronic media and 24-hour news culture.

I was lucky that for most of my career I worked for proprietors who were much more interested in profitability than the editorial line.

There are now proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond. I have, controversially, attempted a public defence of Murdoch, although I've never worked for him. I think he deserves credit for saving The Times. He deserves less credit for re-inventing The Sun as a kind of comic in the 1970s. It would be more difficult to attempt a public defence of Mr Desmond, the boss of Express Newspapers, who told the Leveson Inquiry he did not know what the word "ethical" meant.

Some of what this extensive and very expensive inquiry has uncovered has been indefensible. I think the most worrying thing is the culture that seems to operate in some of the freelance agencies which news organisations use as they cut down on their own reporting staff, apparently one of extraordinary pressure to get stories by any means.

It's ludicrous that the UK Parliament debated this huge report within a day of publication. I have doubts about the need for any kind of statutory control and an instinctive suspicion of political control.

Many journalists resent what they see as the undoubted abuse by some rogue reporters being used to punish the entire industry when meanwhile, on the internet, there is an at times pretty sick and wholly unregulated free-for-all.

I reckon Lord Leveson did not quite understand the necessarily close relationship between journalists and politicians at local and national level.

Enoch Powell once said that a politician who complains about the Press is like a fish complaining about the sea.

I think politicians have much to answer for. Once, contacts were all-important for any reporter. The best way of getting good stories was to have contacts who trusted you. It did not imply fawning or obsequious reporting – far from it. But we now have all sorts of middlemen who get in the way of this relationship.

Some PR agencies, lobbyists and the like are very good but their growth is breaking down old relationships of trust and respect between people with power and the media.

It's the job of the media to present truth to power. But sometimes, paradoxically, to get the truth you need the confidence and respect of politicians. The tendency for this relationship to become distorted or break down raises serious ethical issues. Undoubtedly there should be more investigative journalism, but it's expensive and takes time. You can have two or three good journalists working on a story for weeks, even months.

Some of the best investigations have been done by individual journalists, often dogged folk who preferred working alone.

During my time as editor of The Herald I was very proud that Simon Bain was elected Scottish Journalist of the Year in 2000 for his excellent expose of petrol price-fixing in the Highlands, which required hours of persistent research – and involved taking on some very powerful corporations.

Even at this time of falling circulations and reduced revenues, I believe our Scottish national press is doing a remarkable, special and necessary job.

The Herald, and the other Scottish papers, are going to be more important than ever in the coming two years. We undermine them at our peril.

This is an edited version of Harry Reid's talk on Ethics and the Media at the Colloquium on Ethics held at Glasgow Law School on Tuesday.

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