Report recommends regulation of Scottish Press to be underpinned by statute

SCOTTISH newspapers should be regulated by a body set up by law, according to recommendations from an ‘expert panel’ convened in the wake of a report into Press standards by Lord Justice Leveson.

And, says the panel, regulation should also extend to news websites produced in Scotland.

While Prime Minister, David Cameron, is proposing a Royal Charter rather than legislation to create a new regulatory body, at least in England and Wales, a panel convened by the First Minister, Alex Salmond, has chosen, instead, to recommend the legislative route for Scotland.

The panel was formed to consider how the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards, conducted last year, might be implemented in Scotland. Powers devolved to Scotland allow it to regulate the Press separately and differently to south of the border.

Begins the report by the ‘expert panel': “We have proceeded on the fundamental principle affirmed in the Leveson Report, namely that the terms and conditions of Press regulation should not be prescribed by statute. Any bodies forming part of a new regulatory system must be independent of the legislature and of government as well as independent of the media.

“As invited to do by our Terms of Reference, we have suggested that, consistently with that principle, statute would provide a basic underpinning to ensure (a) that, in future, news-related material would be regulated, but only to the limited extent proposed by Leveson, by an independent, non-statutory, Regulatory Body of a character to be proposed by the press; and (b) that there would be created a separate independent body (the Recognition Body) with responsibility for ensuring that the independent Regulatory Body complies at all times with the Leveson principles and essential recommendations.”

The Scotsman this morning speculated the legislative route might be the key recommendation of the report, which was published early this afternoon.

Among the recommendations is that all news content produced in Scotland, including news websites, should be ‘Leveson compliant’, not that they would necessarily be required to contribute towards the funding of the regulatory body.

The report says: “We accept, but build upon, the Leveson conclusion that the Regulatory Body must have guaranteed jurisdiction over ‘all significant news publishers’. The principal difference between what we advise and what others have proposed is that the jurisdiction of the Regulatory Body must extend by law to all publishers of news-related material. No publisher of news-related material should be able to opt out of that jurisdiction.”

The five-person panel includes the journalist, Ruth Wishart and David Sinclair, a former assistant editor at The Herald, plus a former president of the National Union of Journalists, and now head of communications at Victim Support Scotland.

The panel chair is former Solicitor General and Senator of the College of Justice, Lord McCluskey, with the other two places taken up by Peter Watson, senior partner of Levy & McRae and Visiting Professor at the School of Law, University of Strathclyde, and Neil Walker, Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the School of Law, University of Edinburgh.

Said Alex Salmond: “Lord McCluskey’s group has delivered an extremely thorough piece of work looking at how the proposals made by Lord Justice Leveson could be applied in the context of Scots law, including draft legislation. We will now take the time to consider all of their suggestions in full and discuss the proposals with the other political parties and other stakeholders.

“The report is admirably clear. It is for the Parliaments in London and in Scotland to establish a recognition process. It is for the Press to bring forward a voluntary regulatory body compliant with Leveson principles. I hope that this is still possible.

“The Scottish Government indicated at the time of Leveson’s report that we wanted to implement his key proposals of a voluntary self-regulatory system set up by the press with statutory underpinning.”

Allan Rennie, editor-in-chief at Media Scotland told The Drum media and marketing magazine: ““Stripped bare, it’s proposing that a government-appointed regulator will have the ultimate power to order an investigation if any individual expresses an opinion and the problem with this kind of bill is it’s just so far in its definition of what is news.

“A school boy or school girl doing a blog on their school dinners would be covered by it, a football fan that runs his own fanzine would be covered by it, someone who posts an online comment on an article would be covered by it, a Women’s Guild who produce a church magazine would be covered by it. So, it’s not just about the Press it’s about anyone in Scotland who dares to express an opinion.”

Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson MSP, said of the report: “This is a shameless attempt by the First Minister to shackle a free Press at a time of the utmost political sensitivity.

“The expert group was instructed by Alex Salmond to find ways of implementing a law to control the Press and that’s exactly what it has done.

“Its remit was so narrow it was inevitable a proposal for a new Press law would be the outcome.

“It is unacceptable that both the operation and funding of the new regulator would be overseen by a ‘Recognition commissioner’ appointed by Scottish Government ministers.

“This is not statutory underpinning but statutory control which would give Scotland some of the most draconian Press controls in the Western World.

“With the First Minister now saying he will consider the expert group’s findings there’s a real danger the threat of legislation will be kept hanging over the heads of editors as the referendum approaches.

“Even more astonishing is the proposal for the regulator to be responsible for news comment on the internet and for the newspaper industry to provide all the funds.”

“It cannot be right that an industry already in crisis should be expected to pay for the regulation of the very thing that’s killing it off.

“We are, however, pleased that the expert group has recognised there’s no specific need for a Scotland-only regulator and a single regulator can operate across the whole UK as at present.”

The report also noted: “Scottish legislation could provide for a separate Scottish Recognition Body. We do not consider that there is anything in such a proposal that would prevent the formation of a single UK-wide Regulatory Body if that was considered appropriate.”