Scottish government seeks clarification on press control agreement as confusion emerges


  By a Newsnet reporter
The Scottish government is seeking clarification on the impact on Scotland of an agreement on press control hatched between The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems at Westminster.
Calls for discussions between London Ministers and Holyrood politicians by Alex Salmond follows claim and counter claim over whether the proposals put forward after eleventh hour talks between David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are underpinned by law.

The new deal follows a break up of talks last week after David Cameron lost patience with the leaders of the other two UK parties.  However there was a surprise resumption of talks on Sunday that ended with an announcement of a deal that will see new controls brought in.

The agreement announcement was mired in confusion after Labour and the Lib Dems suggested the new controls would be underpinned by law, something David Cameron denied.  It later emerged that no new law would be drafted and that any new controls would be introduced through a Royal Charter. 

A Royal Charter is a letter from the Queen that sets up public bodies or professional institutions without the need for legislation.

The new controls will be self-regulatory and not underpinned by legislation that would have compelled newspapers to comply with a code of practice.  Existing legislation will be used to prevent politicians from ‘meddling’ with the Royal Charter, and will require a two thirds majority for any changes.

However the early draft of the Royal Charter makes it clear that former politicians including Lords, MPs and MSPs can sit on a new governing board which will oversee the press.  It has also been pointed out that the Westminster agreement has itself been drawn up by politicians.

Responding today to requests from the Scottish government, Mr Cameron agreed that Ministers from Westminster would meet with their Holyrood counterparts as well as opposition party representatives from Holyrood to clarify what the new proposals would mean for the Scottish press.

The core of the Westminster agreement, self-regulation, has already been rejected by the McCluskey Report on the Leveson Inquiry which concluded a voluntary code was unlikely to work.

Lord McCluskey was tasked with examining the possibility of press regulation in Scotland after last year’s Leveson Report into phone hacking and press standards.  Press regulation is a power devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Lord McCluskey produced his findings last Friday.

His report advised the setting up of “an independent, non-statutory, regulatory body of a character to be proposed by the press”, alongside an independent body “with responsibility for ensuring that the independent regulatory body complies at all times with the Leveson principles”.

Lord McCluskey said: “The jurisdiction of the regulatory body proposed by Leveson must extend to all publishers of news-related material and not be a voluntary system.”

The agreement announced by David Cameron will include a similar set up, with an independent self-regulatory body governed by an independent Board.

However Lord McCluskey’s recommendations also included control of social media and web based opinion sites, known as blogs.  Something that some felt went beyond his original remit.

McCluskey’s report led to attacks on Mr Salmond by Unionist parties at Holyrood with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont claiming that Lord McCluskey had been asked to work to a “ridiculously short timescale”.

However it has emerged that the eleventh hour agreement announced by PM David Cameron was reached after five hours of emergency talks with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, which ended in the early hours of Monday ahead of a scheduled Commons debate.  There are concerns that the rushed deal has not fully considered implications for Scotland.

Responding to the announcement of a deal between the Westminster parties, Mr Salmond said it was right that the implications for Scotland be considered.

He said: “We have sought clarification from the UK government that they have properly considered Scottish responsibilities and I have invited them to Scotland to discuss their approach with the leaders of all parties.

“It has always been the intention of the all-party group to hear what the UK government had to say on Leveson once they had agreed a clear position, and whilst there is still some disagreement over whether today’s royal charter will have statutory underpinning, now is the right time for the UK to discuss this approach with parties in the Scottish Parliament.

“Neither Lord Justice Leveson nor Lord McCluskey considered a royal charter. We will now take the time to consider the royal charter in detail and continue with cross party discussions before reporting back to parliament after Easter.”

The Scottish Parliament is expected to debate the Westminster proposals after the Easter break.