Leaders: Press must remain free of political control

David Cameron announced that talks regarding the Leveson enquiry had broken down. Picture: PA
David Cameron announced that talks regarding the Leveson enquiry had broken down. Picture: PA
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A FREE press is fundamental to a democratic society. As politicians continue to debate the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry, that simple principle should be at the heart of their thinking when considering plans to regulate the press.

It is in that context we must view David Cameron’s ending of cross-party talks held in the hope of achieving a post-Leveson consensus. With Labour and the Liberal Democrats at Westminster favouring statutory regulation and the Prime Minister opposed, perhaps the collapse of the talks was inevitable.

If there has to be a new regulatory system, then Mr Cameron’s plan, based on Royal charter not political interference, is a sound one. Why? We have had a free press in this country for three centuries that has held those in power to account by challenging them and exposing their failings. That freedom is under threat.

Newspapers are not perfect, but the admittedly heinous sins of a few should not lead to the vast majority of publications being shackled. Newspapers have to operate within the existing law. Most papers, including this one, have complied with the Press Complaints Commission system, and have a relationship of trust with their readers based on correcting inaccuracies or breaches of the current code of conduct that in the vast majority of cases has satisfied the complainant.

Now, we are not opposed to tighter rules governing how newspapers respond to complaints, as Mr Cameron has suggested. They would allow victims of intrusion or malpractice to have their concerns addressed. However, there are problems with the proposals for arbitration and redress, which could give a financial incentive to complainants, and could tie up large amounts of resources at a time when papers, like other businesses, face a severe economic downturn.

This debate will move on today with the publication of a report by an expert group set up by the First Minister which will result in proposals to regulate the press in Scotland. It is understood the group will propose that regulation here is underpinned by statute.

While we will study the group’s work carefully, the objection to regulation by statute – that is to say regulation passed by politicians which allows a degree of control over newspapers – is a threat to the freedom of the press whether it comes from Westminster or Holyrood. Any beginning of political control should be resisted.

Politicians of all parties have a difficult relationship with the press who hold them to account. It could not, and should not, be otherwise. In judging newspapers, however, we hope they consider the huge majority who have done little or nothing wrong. For 
everyone in this issue the overriding concern should be acting in the best interests of readers, and in the most fundamental sense that lies with a press free of political control.

On the right track to road repair

Potholes have long been the bane of Scotland’s road users. Not only do they incur hefty costs through the wear and tear on vehicles, but they also pose dangers to drivers obliged to take avoiding action around them. So the news that the annual repair backlog appears to have stopped growing and that improvement, albeit slight, is evident, should be welcome. It raises hopes that a long term decline in the state of Scotland’s roads may at last have been reversed. That this improvement was achieved in the face of another severe winter and major budget challenges facing local authorities makes it all the more laudable.

However, there are no grounds for complacency. The latest survey of the Society of Chief Officers for Transportation in Scotland which represents council roads officials, found that more than a third of Scotland’s roads are sub-standard and in poor condition, with roads in rural council areas and most minor roads in a worse state than a year ago.

Some two in five minor or unclassified roads were below standard, a deterioration on the previous year. The backlog was reckoned at £1.73 billion in the 2011 survey.

Chairman Ewan Wallace attributes the improvement to greater joint working between councils, as recommended by a previous Audit Scotland report.

It seems to have taken a long time for this obvious approach to have been put into practice and to bear fruit – further evidence of the argument not only for much greater joint working and collaboration to improve efficiency, but also for a more radical merging of functions of Scotland’s 32 separate local authorities. The roads must be a priority.