The Scottish government made a statement in defence of freedom of the press last week, amid a current rehashing of press regulations on the part of the UK Government.
A published statement from Holyrood questioned the contents of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a bill currently being re-explored by MPs in Westminster, which would see newspapers incentivised to sign up to a government-approved press regulatory body.
Culture Secretary for Scotland, Fiona Hyslop, has confirmed the Scottish government’s oppositional stance on the proposal, saying in a press statement that “a diverse and independent media is vital to sustaining a flourishing democracy.”
Section 40 was drafted in response to recommendations from the Leveson Report, an investigation into press freedoms in light of the phone hacking scandal which saw the closure of the News of the World.
If implemented, it would mean that newspapers must sign up to a regulatory body specified by the government, or else face shouldering all court fees for cases brought against them, whether they win or lose. The move is intended to make it easier for members of the public to challenge defamatory or illegal behaviour by the press.
Hyslop affirmed that “the Scottish Government have no plans to require publishers to pay for the court costs even if they win a defamation case in court, as has happened in Westminster.”
Press regulation is a devolved power in Scotland, meaning the Scottish press already operates under different regulations to those south of the border. The Scottish government is therefore not under obligation to adhere to Section 40. Fiona Hyslop’s statement on the matter serves as confirmation that Holyrood has no plans to implement a similar incentive for newspapers to sign up to state-approved regulation.
However, the implementation of the Act by the UK Government could still have implications for Scottish publications. In her statement, Hyslop highlighted the potential impact on her own constituency, saying: “a move to regulate the press in this way as planned at Westminster could put local newspapers like the West Lothian Courier or the Linlithgow Gazette at risk.”
She also added that “it is essential that the UK Government consider the impact their decisions may have on the press in devolved countries.”
Section 40 is already a matter of contention in Westminster. On 10 January seven MPs signed an early day motion in opposition to the proposal, citing concerns about “the potential for an increase of spurious levels of legal action against publishers”, which may have “a chilling effect on journalism and stifle investigative journalism.”
Although early day motions are unlikely to be debated in the Commons, its tabling suggests some solidarity in Westminster with the Scottish Government’s stance on the Act.