The First Minister made it known just before and just after the publication of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, that regardless of what Westminster did, the Scottish Government would establish a new form of press regulation.
Mr Salmond described – reasonably – the current voluntary and in-house ‘regulation’ through the Press Complaints Commission, as ‘broken’.
The First Minister has since set up a cross-party group to come up with a Scottish formula for such regulation.
Other parties at Holyrood are already calling for the First Minister himself to stand down from this group, given his recorded closeness to the News International Group and to its founder, Rupert Murdoch.
The real anxiety is not whether Mr Salmond should be a member of this group but of why he is so mustard keen on sterner press regulation. It is not as if Scotland’s press has a record of the unacceptable behaviours investigated by Leveson.
However, while the Scottish national press are not particularly rigorous in their interrogation of government, they do release occasional inconvenient revelations and the SNP administration is markedly interested in centralised control – of party, of government and of information.
It is this tendency, allied to the deepening culture of bullying and retribution which should be causing concern amongst those who might otherwise welcome governmental intervention in press regulation.
One of Leveson’s most worrying suggestions is redolent of the worst of the Thatcherite bullying of the press; and is arguably substantially more dangerous than the underwriting in law of an independent regulatory authority.
It is the suggestion that journalists could be forced to inform government of their sources; and be compelled to hand over material received from confidential sources.
Many of the most necessary exposures of the activities of government, politicians, the ministry of defence and the police have been enabled by information from whistleblowers – for example. from Sarah Tisdall to Dr David Kelly to Christopher Galley.
All three of these were outed and all three suffered state retribution.
We would also not have known of the rapacious expenses tendered by and paid to our elected MPs had The Telegraph not been sold the information. [For the record, For Argyll is of the view that the selling of information significantly undermines a secure defence of its transmission.]
It is quite likely that this particular issue in the Leveson Report – of compulsory identification of sources and of handing over material received from them – will be of temperamental and political appeal to the First Minister and might therefore make its appearance in the recommendations of the group he has set up.
His party’s overall majority in Holyrood make what the First Minister is determined to do a foregone conclusion; and the public at large are not as aware as they might be of the extent to which both democracy and right behaviour are safeguarded by whistleblowers.
If people of conscience are deterred from making known wrongdoing in public sector bodies of any kind, our society will be dangerously the worse for it.
We are aware at For Argyll just how important has been information we have been given from within ares of the public sector, including local and national government. We probably use no more than 25% of what we are given – much of this because it could be traced to specific sources; but it is valuably informing of our perspectives and of the soundness of our interpretation of events.
The Scottish national media in all formats will need to keep an eye on this issue as the work of the cross party group on regulation of the press moves forward, They will need to make the consequences of this matter, if enacted, plain to their audiences.
They will need also, to make it clear – as For Argyll does here – that they regard the identity of their sources as sacrosanct and will not, at whatever cost, make those identities known nor hand over material received that might identify them, regardless of the weight of compulsion levied against them.
If they do not do this – if they will not do this – then what we call the ‘free press’ does not and will not exist beyond the idealism of those who know it must.
And if the First Minister avoids enthusiasm for this measure and does not introduce it, it will be a welcome grace note.