As Lord Justice Leveson prepares to publish his final report this afternoon, across the UK there is a clear call being made of Westminster – whilst a beefed-up regulatory system for the press is needed, any system underpinned by statute would be a regressive and unhelpful step.
In Scotland, Alex Salmond will be relieved the report will be coming out after today’s high noon showdown at Holyrood that is Frist Minister’s Questions.
In particular, the vast amounts of evidence published by Leveson left the embarrassing impression – vehemently denied by the first minister – of a cosy, quid pro quo whereby the SNP leader provided support for News International in return for Murdoch’s backing at election time.
Against this backdrop, the first minister has given his weight to the growing sense that any form of state regulation of the press would be the wrong path to tread.
Speaking recently to the BBC’s Scotland Political Editor, Brian Taylor, he explained:
“A lot of fears have been raised that Lord Leveson is going to recommend state regulation of the press, and I don’t think he will incidentally, and I can’t see there’s going to be a currency of support for that in Scotland, we value our free press far too much.
“On the other hand if he said ‘oh laissez faire, alls for the best, the best of all possible worlds’, I don’t think he is going to do that incidentally, then that also would be inadequate because clearly the current voluntary system is broken.”
He continued by expressing his readiness to introduce a distinctively Scottish solution, modelled on the Press Council of Ireland. Under such an arrangement, an ombudsman could pursue complaints on behalf of aggrieved individuals who lacked funds. Newspapers could also use any apology issued to the council as part mitigation against later defamation actions
Whilst many in Scottish Labour might be relishing what Leveson may or may not say vis-à-vis Alex Salmond, in Brian Donohoe, the Labour MP for Central Ayrshire, the first minister has at least one ally in his views on the problems of state regulation.
Whilst outlining his own personal manifesto for an improved, independent regulator, Donohoe today writes in The Scotsman:
“No matter what Lord Leveson says today, I will not be voting for any statutory regulation of the press. Quite simply, it will not work. Legislation will take forever and get bogged down.
“Furthermore, there are already adequate laws for people to pursue in courts for when newspapers break the law, through libel or defamation. We do not need any more legislative oversight.
“Just as the expenses scandal ensured that every politician at Westminster was blamed, so the hacking scandal last year has ensured that every journalist and newspaper is now being blamed as well. The danger is that parties decide to overreact as a result.
“Once Lord Leveson has reported today, the most vital issue will be to ensure that every party – including the SNP in the Scottish Parliament – responds to this as one.”
And adding to the cross-party consensus breaking out north of the border, on Monday, the former Lib Dem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, told The Herald:
“The thing that seems to me to be fundamental is that any system of regulation must command public confidence.
“I am a firm believer in freedom of speech but with freedom comes responsibility. And unless the press can satisfy everyone that they are capable of self-regulation then inevitably there will be enormous pressure for statutory regulation.
“But if I could sound a note of caution: if you have a statutory regulatory system, the decisions of any council or tribunal could be subject to judicial review, which could mean issues that ought to be quickly resolved would be dragged out and involve considerable legal expense.”
Writing for the Belfast Telegraph, meanwhile, Tim Luckhurst, Professor of Journalism at Kent University and a former Editor of The Scotsman, has used a guest piece, under the banner “Our Press must remain free to pursue the truth” to outline his own case for a beefed up self-regulatory system.
Addressing calls for a legally-underpinned body, he writes:
“The constitutional objection is plain: if politicians regulate newspapers, they will make sure they get the press they want, not the press they deserve.
“This is why that trifling instrument of democracy, the Constitution of the United States, declares:
“Government may make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”
“Maintaining independence of newspapers from the state is important in Britain because here executive and legislature are not separate. Our ministers sit in the House of Commons and lead a parliamentary majority. This hybrid arrangement gives a British government power to ensure its legislation is passed; a level of executive power absent from other democratic traditions.
“To balance it, we have developed a system in which additional checks are exercised in the public interest by the courts and the press. Statutory regulation of newspapers would create a constitutional absurdity: government authority over a body the electorate depends upon to scrutinise government.”
“No change is not an option. There must be effective regulation of the press. A new self-regulatory system must have powers to investigate wrongdoing.
“It must have the power to issue fines for unethical conduct and an absolute duty to inform the police if any evidence of criminality comes into its possession. Above all, it must be independent from government, parliament and state.
“An officially regulated press is an appalling idea. A few individuals who have our collective sympathy and who have received or will receive richly deserved compensation might enjoy the spectacle. But we would all be losers.”
We will have more on the Leveson Report later today on Left Foot Forward.