30 April 2013

S4M-06388 Press Regulation

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): We come again to the debate on motion S4M-06388, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on the implications for Scotland of the royal charter on the self-regulation of the press.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I start with a quotation from another area of human endeavour that may touch on the matter before us:

“The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”

Replacing “science” with “the media” perhaps gives us a hook on which to hang the approach that we should be taking in this case.

I am pleased that there has been a broadly consensual approach on the principles of the matter, and that we have coalesced around a motion signed by all the party leaders. I am sure that there will be matters of detail on which we may take slightly different views, and I am about to broach one where my view diverges.

I see absolutely no case, in what is going to the Queen in Council, for allowing any member of the House of Lords to be part of the new system. The majority of the state’s legislators sit in the House of Lords, and this is the only state in Europe where the majority of the legislators hold no electoral mandate from the people. We should not, in any sense, be entrenching any further power in people who have voluntarily chosen to get engaged in the political process in that way. Many members of the House of Lords are very worthy, clever and knowledgeable people, and nothing that I am saying takes that away. However, it dilutes the purity of disconnecting politicians from this important area of public life to allow any member of the House of Lords—however that is restricted—to be part of the way forward.

Liam McArthur: I am interested in Stewart Stevenson’s line of argument. I probably share his desire for wholesale reform of the House of Lords, although perhaps through a different mechanism. Does he accept that, just as provisions are being put in place to ensure that this Parliament, if it so chooses and if the circumstances arise, can move in a different direction, we can go back to the royal charter and amend its provisions following House of Lords reform? For the time being, the Lords remains part of the decision-making process at Westminster.

Stewart Stevenson: Liam McArthur talked about a heavy hand earlier. From my point of view, the heavy hand is merely sisted, not amputated. If the charter does not work as a way forward, what Lord McCluskey has incorporated in his report as a draft piece of legislation is something that we might consider picking up and making law. We could put into law that which we are hesitating to put into law at the moment, because we think that there is a last-chance saloon for a supervised system where the regulation comes from within. Getting rid of the House of Lords is something that we could do tomorrow if we had the will—perhaps we should think about doing so.

It has been quite a long and tortuous journey to get to where we are today. We should be careful not to assert as a matter of fact some of the accusations that are still to be tested by the courts. There are some serious accusations of criminality among a relatively small minority of individuals in the media.

It is interesting that we are talking about the creation of a civil system of recourse although, in fact, the spring from which the contaminated water has flowed was that of criminal action, where the threat of going to prison or being fined vast sums of money did not deter. In the proposals before us, we can see the imposition of £1 million fines making it less financially attractive to break the law. Of course, people should not have to have such sanctions to avoid breaking the law—they should feel naturally that it is their ethical duty not to break the law.

Much of the debate touches on the issue of what is in the public interest and who will be the guardians of that interest, because it is the test of public interest that determines what turns information into news. It has been said that news is something that somebody somewhere does not want you to know. When the public interest test is passed, that thing that someone wants you not to know is properly made available to you so that you know it.

The public interest test is about the balance between the rights of individuals who lose through disclosure and the right of the wider public to know what is going on. How well the public interest test is applied in the new world will be the real test of whether the system is working.

A royal charter carries—it is said—a special protection, as it is a quasi-constitutional bar to easy change of the environment. However, I say “quasi-constitutional” because we live in a state with no formal constitution. There is nothing in law to prevent the House of Commons from working with the House of Lords to overturn anything in the land whatsoever, so I am not wholly convinced that having a royal charter forever offers the protections that some claim it does.

The bottom line is—as I said in the debate on 4 December—that we need to recognise that

“A diverse media, just like democracy, means respecting the rights of those with whom we may fundamentally disagree.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2012; c 14252.]

If others take a different view from what I have just been saying, so be it—I will not get my way today, but that does not mean that I am not right in the long run.

We need diversity, and we need to respect the rights of our local papers. In my constituency office, I have to read 12 local papers. Equally, where is the boundary between a paper that is covered by the charter and a periodical carrying news that is published in a parish for a readership of perhaps 150 parishioners? It seems that such a publication would be caught by the charter. Even we as politicians could be caught by it if we provide something that is news and which perhaps carries advertising in promoting our electoral campaigns. Is such material included?

There is also a difficulty with the boundary between broadcast media and media that is not broadcast. The definition in Lord McCluskey’s draft bill is clear: someone is a broadcaster if they are covered by the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 or 1996, if they are the BBC or if they are Sianel Pedwar Cymru.

Where does that leave Buchan community radio in Peterhead, which broadcasts on the internet but hopes, from time to time, to broadcast for a month or so through the airwaves? Where does it leave Deveron FM in Banff, which is in the same position? Some of the time they will be the media and the press and will be covered by the charter, and some of the time they will not.

The reality is that we need to look at the whole picture, and ensure that we cover all the ways in which people get news and that they are properly controlled.

I thank you for your indulgence, Presiding Officer. I will certainly be supporting the motion today, but I will be hoping for better thereafter.


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