A FREE press is the cornerstone of a free society. Newspapers are far from perfect, but a probing media is an essential part of democracy.

It is particularly vital that police forces have a mature and reasonable relationship with newspapers. However, the relationship between the police and press in Scotland can be described as nothing less than dysfunctional. Two stories in today’s Sunday Herald stand as examples. It is beyond question that undercover policing is an issue of huge public importance. The behaviour of police placing spies into peaceful protest groups – who in some cases slept with targets – rightly shocked the nation.

Earlier this year, this newspaper asked basic questions about the force’s use of informants and the extent of the practice. The force refused to say how many informants had been recruited – an affront to transparency which has ended up costing the taxpayer highly.

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Similarly, claims about the reaction of police to our story about partygoers at a loyalist flute band event at an Orange Order Hall dressing up as

Nazis also raises serious concerns. After a member of the public complained about the images, she was allegedly told the Sunday Herald could be prosecuted for publishing the photos and should complain about this newspaper. This is a straight-forward and chilling threat to press freedom.

In the case of our attempts to ascertain how many informants police recruited, we had to appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) who, in an unequivocal judgement, rejected the paucity of the force’s arguments.

Police Scotland seriously argued that crime groups could use the information and expressed concerns that informants could be deterred from coming forward. The SIC stood firm and ordered the release, but instead of handing over the information Police Scotland used their budget to fund a pointless legal challenge.

The force took the case to the Court of Session where, unsurprisingly, judges concluded that the Commissioner had given clear and intelligible reasons for her decision. As a result, the police lost and we were able to tell the public that there were 759 informers on police books – however, the taxpayer will have to foot the bill for at least £55,000 of legal costs, which cover the force and the SIC.

Given Police Scotland’s financial difficulties, it seems hard to justify using public money for such a pointless exercise. There may be instances in which going to court is appropriate, but this was not one of them.

Police Scotland has many problems in relation to finance and leadership. It is depressing that hostility to transparency and threats to press freedom can be added to the list of failings. It is time for the police to realise how to behave in a modern democracy.