Alex Salmond ducks questions on phone-hacking

  • Salmond to appear at Leveson Inquiry next month
  • Calls for new hacking inquiry in Scotland following latest revelations

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has refused to say whether he has been a victim of phone-hacking.

Salmond was pressed on the issue by Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. But the SNP leader instead said he would speak on the issue when he gives evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards next month.

Salmond came under pressure on the issue at First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood, as opposition politicians again focused on his relationship with News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Labour’s Johann Lamont said the First Minister was now the “last person left defending Rupert Murdoch”.

In the wake of claims from former First Minister Jack McConnell and SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, an aide to Salmond, the Labour leader insisted it was time for a “proper inquiry” into phone hacking in Scotland.

But the First Minister said Strathclyde Police was already conducting a live investigation into the matter, telling MSPs: “Huge resources are being devoted to it and the expectation is that the inquiry will pursue the evidence without fear or favour and come to effective results.”

He also argued that staging a Scottish Parliament inquiry into hacking could result in a “significant risk that a criminal investigation and criminal inquiry would be compromised”.

However, Lamont insisted that as McConnell and McAlpine both state that they may have had their phones hacked, it was “time we had a proper inquiry here in Scotland that investigates who else has been hacked and the full extent of the media influence over politicians and government”.

She said: “A former First Minister has been hacked, an aide to the current First Minister has been hacked, has the First Minister himself been hacked?”

Tory leader Ruth Davidson also pressed the First Minister to say if his phone had been hacked, telling him: “Dodging the question now only to reveal all when he takes the stand later will look like media manipulation of the very worst kind.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie raised the same issue, saying: “The First Minister is responsible to this Parliament. Why won’t he tell us if his phone has been hacked?”

He added: “A year ago the First Minister would have called Leveson a London-based court with a judge who has only been to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival. Now he says it’s the right place for a decision on Scotland.”

Murdoch

With Holyrood not sitting tomorrow because of the local government elections, the weekly question time clash took place yesterday afternoon.

Lamont opened by demanding to know why the First Minister still believed Murdoch was a “fit person to run an international media company”.

She raised the issue the day after the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee accused the News Corp chief of exhibiting “wilful blindness” towards the wrong-doing in his organisation and concluded that he was “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”.

Salmond pointed out that on that point the committee had been split on party lines. And he said the question of whether Murdoch was a fit person was one that should be “judged by the relevant authorities” such as the broadcasting regulator Ofcom and also the Leveson Inquiry.

But Lamont said the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had previously spoken out against Murdoch.

She said the SNP deputy leader had said: “The prospect of one person, especially Mr Murdoch, having more influence over the media in the UK would be a matter of concern, especially in Scotland.”

The Labour leader said Sturgeon was “right” about that, and asked: “What made her change her mind First Minister? It can’t have been when she found out about phone hacking on an industrial scale. It couldn’t have been when she found out the phone of a murdered teenager was hacked. Surely it wasn’t when she found out Joan McAlpine’s phone was hacked.

“Or did she change her mind when the First Minister told her to, when he realised he was the last person left defending Rupert Murdoch?”

Salmond said Sturgeon’s comment was not about News Corps proposed takeover of BSkyB, for which the First Minister has already come under fire over claims that he would lobby Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt on behalf of the Murdochs.

Instead, Salmond said the Deputy First Minister’s had been speaking “about ITV, where News Corp did not have a controlling stake or major interest”.

He also stressed: “I condemn phone hacking regardless of who the victim is and regardless of who the perpetrators are. That is my position.”

News International scrutiny

But Lamont insisted if the First Minister was concerned about issues such as the hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone, he “wouldn’t have sought to rehabilitate” Murdoch by “inviting him for tea” in his official Bute House residence.

The Labour leader said: “The First Minister’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch is preventing any real scrutiny of News International’s activities in Scotland.”

Salmond told her: “We have a live police inquiry in Scotland at the present moment. That inquiry has up to 40 officers working on it. It is a huge commitment of resource by Strathclyde Police.”

He went on: “There is no reason to be sceptical about this inquiry by Strathclyde Police. It is a live inquiry. Huge resources are being devoted to it and the expectation is that the inquiry will pursue the evidence without fear or favour and come to effective results.”

The First Minister added that the police inquiry had “implications” for any other investigations, saying if there was a parliamentary inquiry “there could be a significant risk that a criminal investigation and criminal inquiry would be compromised”.

The First Minister said that even the Leveson Inquiry had to “bear in mind the existence of a live police inquiry”, telling MSPs that when Strathclyde Police Chief Constable Stephen House appeared before the inquiry he could not be questioned on all aspects of the current police investigation.

But Lamont said that by not having an inquiry in Scotland the First Minister “runs away from accountability”.

She said Salmond was “content to rely on a judicial inquiry and a parliamentary committee being run in London to determine the truth in Scotland”.

“Why does the First Minister fear a parliamentary investigation here in Scotland?” she asked. Salmond told her: “Of course Parliament can do exactly what it likes but police inquiries take precedence in issues such as this.”

He also said the Scottish Government had been consulted on the terms of reference for the Leveson Inquiry and had “tried to broaden and strengthen these terms of reference”.

He said that when he appears before the inquiry next month he will “account for every single one of the five meetings I’ve had with Rupert Murdoch over the last five years”.

Salmond added: “I am sure that Gordon Brown will be delighted to explain the 17 meetings he had over three years or David Cameron the 18 meetings over the last five years.”

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