John McLellan: 2018 significant for future of Scottish media

The Leveson Inquiry cost over £5m. Picture: PA.The Leveson Inquiry cost over £5m. Picture: PA.
The Leveson Inquiry cost over £5m. Picture: PA.
So, 2018 is already shaping up to be the most significant year for the Scottish media landscape for some time, kicking off tomorrow with a debate in the House of Lords about the new Data Protection Bill.

The legislation is designed to introduce better safeguards for the handling of private information, but has been hi-jacked by Liberal Democrat and Labour peers, effectively to re-open the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, on the basis that phone-hacking involved the misuse of personal data.

However, there has already been an extensive consultation by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport into whether the second part of the Leveson remit, the relationship between police and press which was suspended while the various criminal prosecutions were under way, should be reactivated. A decision is expected soon, but after a £5.4 million inquiry and around 40 criminal trials the need for a further public inquiry isn’t exactly clear.

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The Labour-Lib Dem amendment calls for an inquiry into “allegations of data protection breaches committed by, or on behalf of, news publishers” and Conservative Lords who oppose it fear the vote will be tight. This week also sees the completion of an Ofcom consultation about the BBC’s plans for a new Scottish channel. Now Ofcom’s remit extends to the BBC following the abolition of the BBC Trust, the broadcast regulator must decide whether to conduct a full assessment of the implications for commercial media markets the BBC proposal could have.

Evidence gathering was completed just before Christmas, and the BBC argued their £32m plan will have wide benefits for the Scottish creative sector and in many ways that’s true, especially for programme-making. But commercial news operators, such as the newspapers I represent, do not accept the BBC’s claim that there are no implications for commercial news operations, or the 80 journalists they want to recruit will only help them address gaps in the market. That there is a difference of opinion is perhaps justification in itself for a full market assessment and a decision will be made in Spring, but the expectation is still that the new channel will launch later this year.

Also expected this year is a decision from Scottish justice minister Michael Matheson on whether to take forward the reform of defamation law proposed by the Scottish Law Commission. Its report and draft bill were submitted just before Christmas and with broad support and non-party political content there is every chance the bill might make it on to the legislative programme for the next Scottish parliamentary year.

l John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and honorary professor of journalism at the University of Stirling