ALEX Salmond has stated that voluntary self-regulation of the press is “broken”, saying he would support an Irish-style “third way”, which puts Scottish newspapers under independent supervision.
The First Minister said he backed the creation of a new Press Council and independent Ombudsman to handle public complaints about the press, stripping the press of its current ability to judge disputes itself.
Lord Leveson will report back today following his inquiry into the press, with Prime Minister David Cameron under pressure from all sides over the plans.
However, Mr Salmond made it clear yesterday he intended to press for a “distinctively Scottish” system, paving the way for differing models north and south of the Border if Mr Cameron today sets the UK government on a different course.
“A lot of fears have been raised that Lord Leveson is going to recommend state regulation of the press, and I don’t think he will incidentally. I can’t see there’s going to be a currency of support for that in Scotland – we value our free press far too much,” Mr Salmond said.
“On the other hand, if he said ‘Oh laissez faire, all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, I don’t think he is going to do that incidentally, then that also would be inadequate, because clearly the current voluntary system is broken.”
Mr Salmond said the Irish system provided a “happy compromise” between the two competing poles of a directly controlled system and the current system of self-regulation.
Making it clear he would be keen to reach a separate system, he said such a compromise could “bring about a distinctively Scottish solution that protects absolutely the freedom of the press, but still allows people, particularly people without the means to carry forward a defamation action, proper redress”.
Ireland’s new form of regulation bills itself as a “third way that is neither statutory nor self-regulatory”, with controls over standards in the press handed to an independently appointed Press Council. The council includes seven independent members, including a former judge, an ex-university vice-principal and a senior civil servant of the council, and six members from the press itself. The panel appoints an ombudsman, who tries to settle disputes initially.
The Irish model was agreed as a compromise after government ministers sought to impose a fully statutory model. The newspaper industry agreed to give it an unusual legal status of a body “recognised under statute, rather than a body created by statute”.
Such a compromise could buy off some free-speech critics, but it could still be too much for others, with 86 MPs and peers having warned Mr Cameron that free speech would be compromised if there was “any form of statutory control.”
A debate on Lord Leveson’s findings will be staged at Holyrood next week.