After past previous mutual opposition over many issues, an political matter has arisen where both Westminster and Holyrood are in agreement.
Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies have always opposed Lord Justice Levenson’s key requirement in his report that the press be regulated by a new body underpinned by statute; citing freedom of the press, Mr. Cameron’s party has proposed that such a regulatory body be backed by a Royal Charter (similar to the BBC) as opposed to statute.
Over in Scotland, a similar report by Lord McCluskey recommended mandatory regulation for all of the press. Taking Levenson’s voluntary requirement further, this is being treated with similar wariness by First Minister Alex Salmond and the SNP.
However, ahead of a Parliamentary debate this week, Mr. Cameron ha been backed into a political corner over the matter. Whilst both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have now backtracked from initial calls for a new press law, and support the concept of a Royal Charter, they have caveats. Both parties and rebel Conservative MP’s want to add an “enshrinement clause” (meaning that such a charter could not be changed without the support of two thirds of MP’s, inter alia), and want to give the proposed charter legal and statutory force- something which Mr. Cameron and the press industry oppose.
Mr. Cameron has suggested that he might come round to the idea; “I don’t think [the clause is] needed but you know this is not the big issue of principle that a Leveson law would have been,” he said.
This could be the Prime Minister exercising damage limitation fearing that he might lose this vote, as indications show that the Conservatives are having difficulty in getting the necessary support in their party to support no legislation, despite great activity by party whips over the weekend.
Over in Scotland, Mr. Salmond cautiously accepted the McCluskey Report, saying it was “admirably clear”, and that he would take time to consider the report. Many Scottish parliamentarians are supportive in holding back from a new press law or mandatory regulation, with pressure groups and lobbyists such as Victim Support backing the report and the proposals for increased press regulation.
Mr. Salmond and the SNP are looking south to Westminster to see the outcome of the debates this coming week over implementing the full proposals of Lord Justice Levenson, before deciding on the implementation of Lord McCluskey’s recommendations. It is evident that the SNP is overall against implementing the whole report in full; very similar to the Conservative’s initial response to the Levenson Report.
The issue in both Scotland and England is press freedom. Both domestic law, European law protect and uphold a free and open press. Many politiicans and lawyers fear lawsuits if the respective press restrictions are imposed, and state that such restrictions are illegal. Above all, politicians and lawyers cite the simple argument that any infringement of the freedom of the press is undemocratic and morally wrong.
Pressure groups, victims of press scandals and supporters of increased, statutory and mandatory press regulation claim that implementing such measures is neither illegal nor undemocratic, but a necessary measure after previous press excesses. Victim Support spokesman David Sinclair in Scotland commented that “unless members are required to be part of the system then there is no system, and then the first time it takes a view which they disagree with, they can opt out,” adding that it was “arrant nonsense” to say that such lobby groups were acting against press freedom by implementing the relevant reforms.
Although all parties agree on tighter controls for the press, it is the mechanics of those controls, and the details, which are very contentious issues. Instead of opposing each other, as has sometimes happened, over this issue both Holyrood and Westminster are in agreement. Instead of Scotland standing up for Scottish issues, often contrary to Westminster, and being fiercely independent, this time the Scottish parliament is actively looking to London for guidance in this contentious issue.
Clearly, Mr. Salmond and the Scottish parliament have one eye on the referendum in 2014, and the press coverage that will be surrounding that, and indeed further into the future if Scotland gains its independence and the ability to legislate in all areas, including the press.