Freedom of expression? Not if this plan is put in place

PERHAPS the most alarming aspect of the expert panel’s report is the fact they have extended their brief beyond Leveson’s recommendations by saying all publishers of news-related material should be caught by regulation.

Just how this would be policed is a detail that was not presented, but the definitions in the draft bill would point to the conclusion that everyone with an online presence is a publisher. Publish a blog and you run the risk of coming to the regulator’s attention. Likewise, your local church newsletter or campaigning leaflet will be caught.

Worryingly, the type of material covered by regulation includes gossip and comment. One wonders whatever happened to the principles of freedom of expression. By its nature, comment allows people to express their views, no matter how offensive. That should not be restricted.

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The issue of jurisdiction is another problem. The cure, according to the panel, would be to allow the Scottish regulator to consider cases where publication took place in Scotland or was targeted to a primarily Scottish audience. Had they not heard of the “world wide web”. The clue is in the first two words. The courts in numerous jurisdictions have held that rights arise in any jurisdiction where material is downloaded.

Even if it were appropriate to bring all publishers under the regulator’s umbrella, the panel fails to take into account the economic realities facing the newspaper industry. Newspapers will have to pay for the regulator. At a time when they are struggling for their very existence, they will be asked to fund complaints based on comment and gossip that have nothing to do with them. Such a financial burden may push some newspapers over the edge. The irony of English titles permeating north of the Border because of the loss of indigenous Scottish titles should be there for all to see.

• Campbell Deane is a Scottish media lawyer.