John McLellan: More serious threats to press than awful SNP broadcast

David Torrance, right, was supposedly lampooned in the broadcast, left
David Torrance, right, was supposedly lampooned in the broadcast, left
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Of all the threats to freedom of expression in Scotland just now, the awful SNP party political broadcast supposedly lampooning columnist and author David Torrance isn’t one of them.

The allegation is that Torrance has been singled out for treatment because of his criticism of the SNP. Presumably the row has also meant a lot more people will have seen the broadcast, too, not necessarily a good thing in this case. Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton has condemned the broadcast in a motion to the Scottish Parliament which says that “for a governing party to appear to mock a journalist in such a way, using a free broadcast on public service television, and thereby inviting its supporters to do so, represents a dangerous challenge to freedom of the press”.

This is ironic because Cole-Hamilton’s party is backing a campaign to force legislation through Westminster that is a much greater danger to press freedom. Labour and Lib Dem peers support an amendment to the Data Protection Bill by Conservative peer Lord Atlee, designed to trigger a system in which media companies being sued in the civil courts over data misuse could be compelled to pay both sides’ costs even if they are successful.

As with the currently frozen measures contained in Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act, the only way for a publisher to avoid punitive costs would be to sign up to a state-approved regulator, which is the Max Mosley-funded Impress. This is an organisation whose chief executive has supported the “Stop Funding Hate” campaign which targets advertisers in the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express and as a result cannot be involved in the unlikely event Impress ever has to deal with complaints against them.

Another DPB amendment effectively revives the Leveson Inquiry, under the guise of an investigation into past data protection breaches by media organisations like phone hacking. But it would suck in all media organisations and the purpose of an expensive public probe would be to recommend a further tightening of a string of laws controlling journalism.

The measures got through the Lords last week and the amended bill comes back to the Commons for committee scrutiny until the end of March and then a final vote to put it on the statute book in late May.

If Cole-Hamilton and his Westminster counterpart, the West Edinburgh Lib Dem MP and former Press Association Scotland editor Christine Jardine, truly believe in freedom of the press, then they will be speaking to their parliamentary colleagues to make sure this illiberal legislation fails.

l John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society