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We must keep the press free – in the UK and in Scotland

The recommendations of the Leveson inquiry, if implemented, would seriously damage the ability of the press to do its job in a democratic society.

Lord Leveson's report has left many political issues in its wake
Lord Leveson's report has left many political issues in its wake

Furthermore, it would wreak that damage without having any effect on the likelihood of illegal practices such as phone hacking recurring.

It's important that we remember why the inquiry was set up in the first place. Some journalists had managed to listen to private messages left on mobile telephones belonging to a number of high-profile individuals. It hardly needs restating that those activities were not simply illegal but morally reprehensible and risked undermining the profession of journalism in the eyes of the public.

There is no doubt there were failings by certain newspapers and that those failings required a tightening of the present system of press regulation. But we should be clear about what those failings were, the culpability of other organisations and individuals and, in particular, the police and senior politicians in the whole sorry mess.

Most importantly, it should be remembered that phone hacking is illegal and the main responsibility for uncovering the full facts and bringing those responsible to justice lay with the police. The much-derided Press Complaints Commission had no power or, indeed, resources to carry out a criminal-style investigation, nor would the successor envisaged by Leveson.

However, the Leveson inquiry covered issues far beyond those relating directly to phone hacking and took evidence on a wide range of ethical questions on the way the media goes about its business and its relationships with those in power.

The recommendations it makes in these areas are every bit as wrong-headed as its recommendations on statutory control, and betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how journalism works.

The best definition of journalism is still to be found in the words of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, who said: "News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.''

A "ban" on off-the-record briefings and the compulsory registration of every discussion between politicians, police officers and journalists will make it far more likely that information which properly belongs in the public domain remains secret.

Journalism, real journalism, involves more than simply attending press conferences and regurgitating news lines approved by those in authority. Journalism – real journalism – involves more than simply expressing an instant opinion on Twitter or on a blog. Real journalism involves work. It involves digging and cultivating sources who are willing to reveal information – sometimes at considerable risk to their own jobs – which those in power want suppressed. The decision to talk privately with a journalist can be an act of bravery which relies on trusting the journalist not to reveal his or her sources. It would never be listed in an official register of discussions, and nor should it be compelled to be so. The arguments against Leveson's recommendations for statutory press regulation are well rehearsed. Any suggestion that newspapers should require an official licence to carry out their duties cannot be squared with the principles of a free and democratic society. Ever.

It is not enough to argue that the proposed legislation is relatively benign. David Cameron is right when he points out that once laws exist they can easily be changed to become more restrictive. Alex Salmond is wrong when he suggests that there is nothing to fear from a purely Scottish system based on the Irish model, which is underpinned by legislation.

The Scottish press – in common with most of the British press – did not involve itself in phone hacking or other illegal activities. We may not be perfect but for all the challenges presented by the media explosion of this age the Scottish press remains vibrant and ambitious, with a proud track record of breaking important stories which would otherwise have been kept from public eyes. That is a role which will never be completely replicated by the internet, for all the benefits it has brought us, and is a role that we should fight to protect.

There are sound arguments in favour of a more rigorous system of voluntary regulation to curb those journalistic activities which most people would regard as excessive. The arguments lose authority when they include any form of statutory enforcement. We believe that to be the case not simply out of self-interest – although for a free press to be effective it has to have the ability to survive in a free market – but because a nation which gives up the right to independent journalism, the right to important information which those in power want suppressed, cannot truly call itself free.

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