Jim Chisholm: Post-Leveson legislation poses threat to press freedom

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IN THE past year the UK has plummeted from 19th to 28th on the World Press Freedom Index. Lord Justice Leveson’s report later this month is seen by many, within the UK and internationally, as the thin end of a sinister wedge.

The Scottish press, with its 133 newspapers, represents a magnificent panoply of news service which is read by nearly 80 per cent of the adult population. In Scotland, we enjoy a relatively free news media, and First Minister Alex Salmond is admirably on the side of an unregulated press. Scotland is also the world’s most competitive newspaper market.

But it is vital people understand that press freedom isn’t a given. Nor is it a switch that governments turn on or off. Its removal is a creeping phenomenon.

Increasingly journalists are being restricted in their reporting. Many local police are no longer allowed to speak to reporters. The police, fire and ambulance services are stopping photographers taking pictures, purporting all sorts of nebulous nonsense about privacy.

Judges are propounding arbitrary rules of contempt, stopping reporters writing stories of vital interest and reporters are being turned away from public meetings.

In 2011 in the UK, three times as much money was spent on “public relations”, what I might call organisational propaganda, than on legitimate journalism.

The phone-hacking scandal, and other recent criticisms of the media, is adequately covered under current law. Phone-hacking was not ignored by the media but by police, who failed to act under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Of course, News International, and all other media would seek closeness to government ministers but this a question for the politicians who let them.

Despite Lord Justice Leveson’s good intentions, his inquiry could end up sliding the UK further down the scale of press freedom, rather than addressing the true societal causes of why we are where we are. The solution is not to attempt to restrict press freedom, as Leveson might recommend, but to let the British press continue with independent, but stronger, self-regulation.

• Jim Chisholm is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society.