05 November 2020

S5M-23243 Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-23243, in the name of Ash Denham, on the Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill.

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

We live in a society that is built on free speech and the exchange of ideas and information. By the same token, however, we live in a society in which there are increasing levels of harmful, false information.

In addition, people around the world can express their thoughts on a scale that is unparalleled in human history. There are more and more platforms that people can use to publish their thoughts, and views that are expressed are almost instantly subject to the court of public opinion. A random thought can be seen by millions of people in almost no more than an instant, and the mechanisms for expressing our observations and critiques continue to grow.

In stating that, I hope that I have conveyed specifically that the world of communication continues to become more complex and diverse. That carries with it significant challenges. I believe that there are two important principles to which we should adhere: the first is simplicity and the second is balance. The general public will not generally read legislation, but, when they do, they should be able to understand it.

The bill encourages both simplicity and balance. One way in which it encourages simplicity is through the increased clarity of the situation in law. The ambiguity in our current legislation and case law can further complicate an already complex landscape. By stating clearly that any statement must be communicated to a third party and must cause serious harm to someone’s reputation, the bill will reduce the burden of interpretation on all parties. I do not seek to bring Mr Wightman’s personal experience to the chamber in saying that, but, although I will read his words carefully, I probably disagree with them.

In the ever-evolving global communications landscape, all of that is essential. Removing needless complexity will ensure that energy and resources are focused on the elements that cannot be pared down so easily.

Furthermore, I highlight the importance of improving the defence for secondary publishers. I published my first website 27 years ago, so I have a particular interest in that area. Platforms, and the way in which information travels, have changed drastically over the 20-plus years since I first engaged with them. Thirty years ago, far fewer of us on this planet had access to powerful tools, and someone had to own a newspaper to have the kind of power that is at almost everyone’s fingertips today, although our understanding of how to engage with the new platforms has moved on more slowly than the evolution of the platforms themselves. Nevertheless, we have an improvement in the defence for secondary publishers. It provides clarity and places responsibility with those who actually write the words and have creative control, which is where it should lie.

In relation to balance, the bill also makes an important movement towards free speech. Specifically, it does that through the single publication rule and the one-year limit. Together, those provisions ensure that people do not have to fear legal consequences for statements that did no significant harm at the time of publishing but may be less well received in a future context. We need to protect the soil for honest social discourse, and the bill tips the balance towards free speech in an important way. Therefore, I suggest that it is a positive evolution in how defamation and malicious publication are dealt with.

The bill does not place inhibition on anyone criticising politicians. It has been said that the reputation of a politician cannot be damaged because they have none to lose. Perhaps we can raise ourselves off the floor with the bill.


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