DAVID Steel’s decision to cover up the predatory behaviour of a prolific paedophile was because “things were less clear” around child sex abuse forty years ago, the former editor of the Scotsman has claimed.

Magnus Linklater praised his “friend” and hit out at critics of the LibDem peer.

Steel resigned from the party on Tuesday after he was criticised by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) for “abdicating responsibility” over Rochdale MP Cyril Smith.

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The inquiry suggested Steel, who led the Liberals between 1976 and 1988, was more concerned with his party’s reputation.

It said Steel “should have provided leadership,” but instead, “he abdicated his responsibility. He looked at Cyril Smith not through the lens of child protection but through the lens of political expediency”.

The National: David Steel put his political gain ahead of children's safetyDavid Steel put his political gain ahead of children's safety

Linklater wrote: “Does one contentious decision, dating back 40 years, determine a man’s reputation for ever? Of course not.”

He suggested history would remember Steel’s “long and distinguished role in political life, his campaign to make abortion legal, the fight against apartheid, the way he united the Liberal and SDP parties, his support for devolution and his important contribution as the first presiding officer of the Scottish parliament” rather than for turning a blind eye to the activities of Smith.

The journalist went on to claim that the furore over Steel is because of “the moral perspective of today” being applied to “a single (and disputed) conversation in 1979”.

READ MORE: Scottish LibDems 'chose party interests' over Cyril Smith's victims

During their evidence sessions IICSA asked Steel if the Liberal Party in Westminster was aware of the allegations made against Smith.

Private Eye magazine had reported that young boys in Rochdale children’s homes had been stripped, spanked and fondled by the local MP.

Steel, who led the party between 1976 and 1988, said he confronted his colleague in 1979.

“What I said to him was: ‘What’s all this about you in Private Eye?’

“He said, rather to my surprise, ‘It is correct’, that he had been in charge of or had some supervisory role in a children’s hostel, that he’d been investigated by the police, and that they had taken no further action, and that was the end of the story,” the peer said.

The National: Magnus Linklater offered a weak defence his friend David Steel, saying Steel would have thought the abuse was none of his businessMagnus Linklater offered a weak defence his friend David Steel, saying Steel would have thought the abuse was none of his business

The inquiry’s lawyer Brian Altman asked Steel if it was his understanding that Smith had “actually committed these offences, from what he said to you?” Steel responded: “I assumed that.”

The QC then asked: “Wasn’t that all the more reason to take matters further and hold some form of inquiry?”

The peer answered: “No, because it was, as I say, before he was an MP, before he was even a member of my party.

“It had nothing to do with me.”

READ MORE: LibDems threaten to quit if Steel is expelled for abuse cover-up

Linklater, who was the editor of the Scotsman from January 1988 until July 1994, claimed “things were less clear” around child sex abuse forty years ago.

He wrote: “Instead of seeing paedophilia as the unacceptable crime it is today, police and prosecutors were slow to take action against it, and all too often did nothing at all.

“The charge is that Lord Steel did nothing to protect his party from embarrassment. I very much doubt that.

“Knowing him as a friend, I suspect he thought it was none of his business.

“Of course it should have been; we know now that failing to act on claims like this is a cardinal error.”

Steel has also been praised by Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie. Speaking to journalists on Thursday, he said: “David has a very long career in politics.”

However, he admitted it was the “right decision” for Steel to resign.