McCluskey report recommends statutory press regulation in Scotland

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   By a Newsnet reporter

The McCluskey Report into press regulation has been published, and recommends statutary regulation of the press in Scotland, to be backed up by legislation.  The report was commissioned to investigate how to implement the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry under Scots Law.

The five-person panel preparing the report consisted of legal experts and journalists and was set up in December last year.  The panel was chaired by Lord McCluskey, senator of the College of Justice and a former solicitor-general.

Lord McCluskey’s report goes further than most expected, and says that if Westminster fails to create a UK-wide press regulator then the Scottish Parliament should create one for Scotland after consultations with the media.  However the report stressed that regulation must ensure that the media is not “subjected to regulation that might undermine or even threaten their role as a fearless critic of government and independent investigator and reporter”.

The report also added that print media and websites should not be subject to the same restraints placed upon public sector broadcasters such as the BBC, which have a statutory duty to be impartial.  However Lord McCluskey noted that “the rights of a newspaper proprietor to further his or her own political or commercial agenda are not necessarily to be allowed to take precedence over the rights of citizens and the rule of law”.

The proposed new Scottish press regulatory body would have the power to take action against both print publications and websites.  The report added that further regulation may be required in order to include social media such as FaceBook and Twitter in the new provisions.  

The report proposes that funding for the new system should be settled after agreement between the new regulator and the media, with print publications being expected to foot the majority of the costs.  The new press regulator would determine how charges would be allocated between different publishers.  However, not all those subject to the new regime would have to pay, for example online news blogs which operate under far more severe financial constraints than established newspapers.

Cross party talks on UK implementation of the Leveson Inquiry findings broke down in Westminster after Prime Minister David Cameron withdrew from negotiations with the Liberal Democrats and Labour.  Both Labour and the Lib Dems are in favour of legislation to make press regulation mandatory, however the Prime MInister and many Conservative oppose such a move, preferring a system backed by a Royal Charter.  The House of Commons will vote on the issue on Monday.

The McCluskey report found that voluntary regulation of the press was unlikely to be effective, saying that the measures proposed by Leveson were not strong enough to ensure that publishers participated in a voluntary system of the kind preferred by the Prime Minister.  

The report said:

“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.

“We have little confidence that the voluntary ‘opt in or opt out’ model proposed by Leveson would work – whatever incentives were devised to encourage publishers to opt in.

“The carrots proposed by Leveson are not sufficiently enticing, nor the sticks sufficiently intimidating, to put any real pressure on publishers to join a scheme that replaces light touch self-regulation.”

In an accompanying letter to First Minister Alex Salmond, Lord McCluskey writes:

“The jurisdiction of the regulatory body proposed by Leveson must extend to all publishers of news related material and not be a voluntary system…

“If the London discussions fail to produce a compliant body, we suggest that Scottish ministers consider introducing legislation separately to ensure that those resident in Scotland can be adequately protected from abuse.”

Lord McCluskey warned that legislation was required because “significant” publishers may choose to opt out of any voluntary system “and we would be left with no system at all”.  He added:  

“All and any news-related publisher may be considered significant, since all and any may be capable of causing the very harm which Leveson is committed to addressing.”

First Minister Alex Salmond welcomed the report, saying:

“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.”

For the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie MSP said:

“The McCluskey report appears to go much further than anyone had expected.

“To include every source of news coverage would result in a torrent of complaints about every website, every blog, even every single tweet. I cannot see how this is remotely practical, even if it was desirable.

“If the will exists in Scotland to see the Leveson proposals implemented, it should not be beyond our ability to ensure that professional, commercial media organisations are properly regulated, but individual citizens are not caught up in the same system.

“The most urgent priority is to build as much consensus as possible – which sadly however cannot now include the Prime Minister – to ensure that Westminster votes on Monday for the full implementation of Leveson, with statutory underpinning.

“To that end, I would urge the SNP MPs to recognise that this decision will have a clear political impact in Scotland, and that they should work with other opposition parties against Mr Cameron’s plan.”