In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: ‘McLeveson’ has overtaken Leveson

THE ‘son of Leveson’ has overtaken its parent. The report from the ‘Expert Group on the Leveson Report in Scotland’ – let’s dub it ‘McLeveson’ – is only 30 pages long.

Yet it goes further than the 2,000-page Leveson Report. It includes a draft Bill, presumably drawn up by the three lawyers in the five-person group, ready for the Scottish Parliament to pass.

They’ve even chosen a title: the Press Standards (Scotland) Act 2013. Thankfully, the signs this evening are that parliament is not ready to pass it.

The remit of the group, led by Lord McCluskey, was to “consider the findings and recommendations” in the Leveson Report on Press regulation and recommend the most appropriate means of achieving “statutory underpinning in Scotland”.

Lord Leveson spent only one of his 2,000 pages on the internet and effectively just sighed. “The internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards,” he said, “so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”

He added: “People will not assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy.”

‘McLeveson’ shows no such reticence and it diverges from Leveson in a number of ways. First, it says the “Scottish Ministers must appoint an individual as the Recognition Commissioner” – not a Recognition Panel, as envisaged in England.

This commissioner may recognise a body as the approved Press regulator if it meets the requirements set out in the Leveson Report. That body must pay the commissioner a fee which he or she sets and he “may set different fees for different cases or circumstances”.

He may also charge that body a fee if it seeks his advice about applying to become the recognised regulator.

The approved regulator will cover “all relevant publishers”. Who are they?

They will include anyone, other than a broadcaster, who publishes in Scotland a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or publishes news-related material by electronic means, including a website, whether or not connected to a newspaper or magazine.

Published in Scotland means publication takes place in Scotland or is targeted primarily at an audience in Scotland.

“News-related material” means news or information about current affairs, comment about news or current affairs, gossip about celebrities, other public figures or people in the news. It even defines gossip: “assertions of fact about the private or family life” of any of these people “if the information published is calumnious, defamatory or scandalous”.

If no regulator has been approved after six months of this Bill coming into force, the Recognition Commissioner must formally inform the Scottish Ministers and they must set up a Press regulator.

There are some good things in the report, such as accepting Leveson’s idea of a ‘conscience clause’ for journalists, and it emphasises the position journalists and editors can find themselves in: “The freedom of the proprietor is quite different from the freedom of the editor or a journalist. The owner can sack the editor without explanation. Journalists likewise can suddenly find that their services are no longer required…

“Neither the editor, nor indeed the paper itself, is ‘independent’ of the proprietor… Thus the perspectives and rights of journalists should not be forgotten or dismissed.”

At least ‘McLeveson’ rushed in where Leveson feared to tread and did not ignore online media. But Leveson and ‘McLeveson’ both have a fundamental flaw.

We are being asked to accept a statutory watchdog for a regulatory body, that has still to be appointed, to enforce rules that have still to be drawn up. The words, ‘pig’ and ‘poke’ come to mind.

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.