Scotland should opt into UK wide press regulation, say committee of MSPs

As political leaders in Scotland once again meet today to discuss how to take forward the need for a reformed system of press regulation post-Leveson, a committee of MSPs has called for Scotland to opt into the UK wide Royal Charter proposal rather than going its own way.

As political leaders in Scotland once again met last week to discuss how to take forward the need for a reformed system of press regulation post-Leveson, a committee of MSPs has called for Scotland to opt into the UK wide Royal Charter proposal rather than going its own way.

Members of Holyrood’s education and culture committee have concluded that an adoption of a UK wide charter would give the press one final chance to change its practice before resorting to legislation.

Commenting on the report’s conclusions, the committee’s convener, SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell explained:

“The newspaper industry in Scotland is rightly proud of its role within Scottish public life.

“We have listened to the views of witnesses who were clear that the press should be given one final opportunity to change. We feel a UK-wide Royal Charter allows the industry in Scotland, and indeed beyond, to do just that.”

He continued, however:

“For such a system to work, there must be participation of the press and this must be done willingly.

“Without this, the system will fail. Should that happen, then legislation must surely be the only option. The public would expect nothing less of its parliament.”

It follows reports last week that the Scottish government is looking seriously at the suggestion, despite Alex Salmond’s previous assertion that the issues “cannot just be left to Westminster”.

Meanwhile, a bitter argument has broken out between the Scottish government and the author of the report it commissioned into how to implement the Leveson proposals north of the border.

In March the group, led by Lord McCluskey of Church Hill, a former solicitor general for Scotland, surprised many by calling for a statutory system of press regulation. Asked this week by Holyrood’s Culture Committee whether the recommendations went beyond the remit set by the Scottish government, the cabinet secretary for culture and external affairs Fiona Hyslop was unequivocal in saying yes. She continued:

“It’s a very valuable report and the points about Scots law are well presented. However, in terms of straying beyond a Leveson-compliant scheme which was voluntary, I think that the report went beyond that.”

In a letter to the Scotsman published yesterday, however, Lord McCluskey hit back, declaring in no uncertain terms that the group stuck “exactly” to its remit. Arguing that Scots Law needed to be looked at to implement Leveson’s recommendations, he argued:

“Leveson hoped that all significant news publishers would accept that jurisdiction on a voluntary basis; and he suggested technical – English legal – methods of encouraging publishers to sign up.

“The methods suggested were not available in Scots law and were seriously challengeable under European law.

“Not only that: a number of “significant news publishers” had already made it clear that they would not join a voluntary scheme, whatever the incentives.

“We had no sound basis for suggesting that Scots law could provide effective incentives to make them all join voluntarily.

“So we suggested that the legislature should define which publishers should be classified as “significant”, and give the new regulatory body jurisdiction to apply the ‘Editors’ Code’ to them.

“That code contains the rules written by the press to govern their own conduct.”

Concluding that the Scottish government’s response so far has not been convincing on press regulation, he concludes by saying of Ms Hyslop:

“The cabinet secretary has not shown how she will deal with the likely situation that some ‘significant news publishers’ will not voluntarily accept the new regulatory jurisdiction, thus rendering the system non-Leveson-compliant and ineffective.

“Nor has she identified any convincing incentives. She has also departed from the fundamental Leveson principle of ‘statutory underpinning’ and proposes to proceed instead by a Royal Charter, thus bypassing the legislature, especially in relation to defining which publishers are to be regarded as ‘significant’.

“I believe we faced up to the real problems. In doing so, we did not go beyond our remit.”

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