Why Leveson is right to allow anonymous witnesses

Sometimes, anonymity is necessary in the public interest. That does not justify the tabloid's prurie

The decision to allow anonymous sources to contribute to the Leveson inquiry could be seen as a victory -- or a bit of a bear trap.

It's deliciously hypocritical of the Daily Mail to use the "Yuman Rites* Act" it has so often pilloried in the past to attempt to stop others from using the kind of anonymous sources it wouldn't think twice about using.

I remember when "friends" of the newsreader Carol Barnes happily stuck the boot into her when she was about to die, as reported by the Mail, or when a "friend" of missing woman Claudia Lawrence decided to tell all to the Mail (rather than the police) about the alleged nature of her acquaintance's private life (and more particularly sex life).

It's not just the Mail, of course, and it would be wrong to portray this use of anonymous "friends" to just those titles, when there are many others who use this kind of tactic all the time. The veneer of public interest in a dying (or dead) celebrity, or the sex life of a missing person, is very thin indeed, although the authors of these pieces attempt to justify why we're being told about these secrets when the subject doesn't have the ability to respond to them.

But we all know what it's really about: it's about feeding the readers' morbid or prurient curiosity and hoping to get or retain readers off the back of it. That's all there is to it. No-one has ever really benefited from finding any of this information out. Have people benefited financially from revealing it? That is a mystery. Perhaps people do it out of the goodness of their hearts because they really want the wider public to know.

Anonymous sources do have their place in journalism. Without them, whistleblowers would not be able to tell their side of events and bring items of genuine public interest to the fore. It's in most workers' contracts, private or public, that if you tell the media what's going on in your workplace, you can be kicked out -- and that means a lot can be concealed.

I think there's a justification for paying sources as well, if what they reveal could not be brought into the public arena in any other way. After all, it makes sense to compensate some people who have an awful lot to lose if it is found out that they are behind a particular story.

There's a time and a place when these things are right, and necessary -- but also a time and a place when they're impossible to justify. When people's lives get wrecked, when untruths are told and the victim is unable to respond because they're missing or dead, when there's no reason for publishing other than "because we can". Is that the price we must pay for those occasions when anonymity provides a genuine scoop for a story of real public interest?

There's also a time when sources are as dodgy as hell, and it doesn't do any particular harm -- for example, when an "onlooker" comments on a story for a red-top with a quote so pitch-perfect that you could be forgiven for thinking it had been written by the journalist who put the story together and merely attributed to the eyewitness. If that doesn't really do any damage, is it the worst crime in the world, especially when readers are aware of the likelihood of the spectacularly articulate "onlooker" existing?

There could be a concern that an inquiry which is investigating, among other things, the use of anonymous or paid sources, might open itself to accusations of hypocrisy by using, er, anonymous sources. But I don't think that's such a problem, and I'm glad that we will be hearing from anonymous contributors about the culture of what goes on in newsrooms up and down the country. It's worth taking that evidence with the same amount of cynicism we might usually reserve for anonymous sources in newspapers -- which in my case is quite a lot.

* The silly phonetic spelling of such subjects as "Yuman Rites" and "Elf 'n' Safety" is a trope often used by the Mail's own star columnist, Richard Littlejohn, in order to emphasise the ribtickling nature of such subjects. Perhaps my favourite example of Littlejohnian phonetic silliness is when he decided that the inherent let-wing bias of the BBC would see Israelis thought of as "Izza-ra-ay-lees". You know, Izza-ra-ay-lees. The pronunciation that no-one has ever used, ever.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.