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Mature debate on future of the press

YESTERDAY'S debate at Holyrood in response to Lord Leveson's report on the ethics of the press could have turned into a cipher for the independence debate with all the usual political posturing.

The First Minister's immediate response appeared to suggest that he favoured a separate, beefed-up press complaints body backed up by an ombudsman, enshrined in Scottish law, while opposition parties wanted a UK body with or without "statutory underpinning".

It is a tribute to Alex Salmond's political pragmatism and the thoughtfulness of contributions from all sides of the chamber that this debate was a constructive discussion that served to dispel some of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the subject matter.

The Leveson Report is a weighty work, both literally and metaphorically, and one that inevitably took a few days to digest. Lord Leveson said many tough things about the failings of the press, while seemingly seeking to avoid a prescription for state regulation that could have jeopardised the role of newspapers as a bulwark to democracy. State regulation is not the answer. Lord Leveson threw down a gauntlet to the press to come up with a form of tough independent self-regulation, with a form of statutory back-up.

Yesterday's debate illustrated the degree of consensus around this topic. It is important not to confuse means with ends. Nobody could or should defend the status quo. Most favour a strong, independent body that can offer prompt, cheap, effective redress to those who have been wronged. That is also in the interests of newspaper editors, who have no desire to be dragged through the courts.

We repeat our contention that self-regulation worked well in general for the Scottish and regional press but there are exceptions, including, it seems, a number of Scottish victims of phone hacking. As Labour's Johann Lamont argued yesterday, the problem was not that the same rules applied in Scotland and England but that they were not properly enforced.

If Mr Salmond had envisaged a separate Scottish regulatory apparatus initially, he appears to have changed his mind. Yesterday he not only proposed all-party talks on the issue but also suggested a single UK-wide body could be acceptable, provided it satisfied a set of criteria laid down by Holyrood. His solution would even avoid the controversy of the Irish system on which it is based, by suggesting that a Court of Session judge chairing an independent implementation panel, rather than a government minister, could determine whether the Holyrood criteria had been met. This would take potential political influence one step further away.

Of course, this begs the question of what would happen if this appointee rejected the structure of the UK body but acknowledges, as Lord Leveson did, that a separate response is required from Scotland. Quite quickly, this becomes a rather arcane debate that is unlikely to hold the public interest for long.

What emerged from yesterday's debate was that in Scotland Labour and the SNP are not so far apart on this issue as first appeared.

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