Statutory incentives to force news publishers to join a State-approved regulator are a potential threat to Press freedom, says Scottish Culture Secretary Angus Robertson.
The threat to force news publishers to pay all court costs in civil cases brought against them, regardless of the outcome, is contained in Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act, as part of the UK Government’s response to the Leveson Inquiry which followed the phone hacking scandal.
Section 40 does not apply in Scotland and has never been officially introduced in England. Its abolition was contained in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and is part of the Media Bill now before the UK Parliament.
In a statement to coincide with the annual Journalism Matters campaign week organised by the News Media Association, Mr Robertson said such legal compulsion “poses a potential threat to freedom of the press,” and reaffirmed the SNP had no plans to introduce such a measure in Scotland.
“A free, vibrant, and independent press is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and the Scottish Government is committed to playing our part to ensure it is maintained, said Mr Robertson.
“Journalists and news publishers must have the freedom to report, and to criticise, the actions of governments and public institutions. Ensuring that democratic institutions are held to account relies on the freedom to publish material which is in the public interest.
“At the same time, we remain committed to ensuring that the practices which led to the Leveson Inquiry do not happen again, and we believe that all individuals should have the ability to seek redress when they feel they have been the victim of press malpractice.
“The Scottish Government believes that the regulation of the press should be independent from Government, and wants independent self-regulation of the press to be maintained. The Royal Charter on Independent Self-Regulation of the Press was agreed by the Scottish and UK Governments in 2013.
“As regulation of the press is devolved, section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which incentivises members of the press to sign up to a State-approved regulator, does not apply under Scots law. The Scottish Government has no plans to introduce statutory measures to incentivise participation in the regulatory system as we believe it poses a potential threat to freedom of the press.”
“We welcome DCMS’ planned engagement with industry on the draft Media Bill text; it is vital that the views from across all parts of the UK are considered as part of this process.”
Newsbrands Scotland director John McLellan said, “We very much welcome Mr Robertson’s support for the principle of removing Section 40 from the statute books, and hope the Media Bill will pass before the next election. If it was ever introduced, the punitive costs it would impose on publishers, even if they won, could have a serious impact on those companies operating on both sides of the Border. ”
Mr Robertson also called for the safeguarding of Gaelic to be included in the Media Bill.
“The UK Government has a key role in support for media and broadcasting. In delivering this, the UK Government needs to consider its current support for minority indigenous languages and whether it is currently demonstrating parity of support and provision, including through this important piece of legislation,” he said.
“The Scottish Government believes that Gaelic, being an indigenous minority language for Scotland, requires safeguarding, and this should be reflected in the Media Bill.”