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Leveson queries Salmond's stance over Murdoch's BSkyB deal

First Minister Alex Salmond would have knowingly led UK ministers to break the law if it advanced Scottish interests, according to Lord Justice Leveson's report into press standards.

Mr Salmond displayed a "striking" readiness to lobby UK Business Secretary Vince Cable and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp during their consideration of the legality of its proposed acquisition of BSkyB, according to the Inquiry Report released today.

Lord Justice Leveson found no evidence of a deal to trade NewsCorp newspaper support for the SNP in exchange for Scottish Government support for the BSkyB bid, but he noted that both were discussed during the same conversation.

Ultimately, Mr Salmond did not contact the UK ministers, despite indicating his willingness to do so, and therefore "cannot be criticised" because he must be "judged by what he did, as opposed to what he said he was prepared to do".

But Lord Justice Leveson found that Mr Salmond was aware the ministers had a quasi-judicial role and that this knowledge "would not have stopped him from trying to advance considerations which would have led the decision-maker into error had they been heeded".

"Plurality was the only consideration which could legitimately have been taken into account by the Secretary of State," said Lord Justice Leveson.

"Acceding to Mr Salmond's argument would have rendered the decision unlawful."

During the Inquiry, Mr Salmond argued that the Scottish Ministerial Code, which restricts ministers from promoting an individual company's products or services, does not prevent them from "fulfilling their proper function of encouraging investment in economic activity".

But Lord Justice Leveson found this argument unconvincing. "Mr Salmond adamantly believed that he was entitled to make his case and that responsibility for ensuring that the decision was properly taken rested entirely with the Secretary of State," he said.

"Mr Salmond is right that legal responsibility for taking the decision lawfully rested with the Secretary of State.

"But it does not follow that he was entirely at liberty to seek to persuade the Secretary of State into error (particularly, if successful, it could potentially have had the effect of giving rise to grounds for challenge).

"Neither do I understand how a section of the Scottish Ministerial Code dealing with public sector procurement assists.

"Mr Salmond's duty to promote the Scottish economy and Scottish jobs cannot sensibly be understood as requiring irrelevant submissions to be made to a quasi-judicial decision-maker.

"The evidence does not go so far as to show either an express or an implied deal between Mr Salmond and James Murdoch trading newspaper support for assistance with the bid.

"What it did reveal was the way in which Mr Salmond was expressly seeking the support of The Sun in the same conversation as he was repeating an offer to assist with the bid."

He concluded: "I have absolutely no doubt that Mr Salmond was motivated by an anxiety to help Scottish employment and to benefit Scotland generally: that is entirely laudable and exactly what is the expectation and proper function of the First Minister.

"How far that should be taken, however, is another matter.

"He appreciated that employment, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, was not a relevant consideration for the minister and, in fact, he never contacted either Dr Cable or Mr Hunt to argue the contrary.

"Judged by what he did, as opposed to what he said he was prepared to do, therefore, he cannot be criticised."

Commenting on today's report, Mr Salmond's spokesman said: "Today's report is a complete vindication of the First Minister's position in terms of the case he was prepared to put to promote Scottish jobs and the wider Scottish economic interest.

"As Lord (Justice) Leveson himself says, Mr Salmond 'cannot be criticised' in respect of the BSkyB takeover issue and was 'motivated by an anxiety to help Scottish employment and to benefit Scotland generally' which was 'entirely laudable and exactly what is the expectation and proper function of the First Minister'.

"This report drives a coach and horses through the claims of opposition politicians in the Scottish Parliament, whose own parties' dealings with News Corporation and other major media organisations have been far greater than those of the First Minister."

However, Scottish Labour parliamentary business manager Paul Martin said the report "gives a fascinating insight into the murky way Alex Salmond goes about his business".

"The only thing that stopped that wrongdoing was that the UK Government made a decision before Salmond got round to phoning them," he said.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "Lord Leveson has seen right through Alex Salmond. He is justly concerned about the murky dealings between Alex Salmond and the Murdochs.

"He found that Alex Salmond was prepared to entice a UK minister to act unlawfully on the BSkyB bid at the same time as he was seeking political support from Mr Murdoch's newspapers.

"Lord Leveson did not believe Mr Salmond's claims that the Ministerial Code required the First Minister to lobby those UK ministers on the bid.

"Although Lord Leveson found no hard evidence of a deal with the Murdochs, he is clearly concerned about the cosy relationship."

Meanwhile, Mr Salmond said he will now consider how Lord Justice Leveson's proposal of an independent print regulator backed by legislation can be adapted to Scottish circumstances.

He has proposed an "independent implementation group" to consider the report's findings. He said: "The Scottish Government is already more transparent than the UK Government when it comes to publishing meetings with newspaper editors, proprietors and senior executives, but we will certainly consider moving to quarterly publication of such meetings and correspondence.

"The Scottish Ministerial Code already has a key clause making clear the overarching onus on Scottish ministers to take the promotion of Scottish jobs, investment and economic activity into account, as the Leveson report acknowledges.

"This clause was placed in the code in June 2008 to reflect the fact the Scottish Government had adopted sustainable economic growth as its top priority. We will now give consideration to placing that clause at the very start of the Ministerial Code to emphasise the importance we place on the issue."

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said Lord Justice Leveso's recommendations look "sensible" as independent regulation backed up by law offers "an easier way for ordinary people to get justice without the expense of the courts".

She added: "I am not convinced that there is a need for a separate press regulation system in Scotland. But after reading Lord Leveson's comments in his report, I am convinced that Alex Salmond is not the man to lead any form of press regulation."

Law Society Scotland president Austin Lafferty said: "Today's recommendations of establishing a new independent body will help re-build public confidence.

"It's vital that the new body is free of government and industry influence, and that the media voluntarily supports its objectives.

"It will be interesting to see the ripple effect on Scottish media and how this develops in Scotland with the First Minister's plans for a cross-party inquiry group and a debate by MSPs next week."

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