Scottish press watchdog could be derailed

PLANS by the Conservatives to underpin press regulation with a Royal Charter could scupper Alex Salmond’s proposal to set up a separate Scottish watchdog, it emerged last night.

The proposals for a Royal Charter were published by the Tories yesterday and received a cautious welcome from coalition partners the Liberal Democrats.

The measures would create a body to cover all of the UK that would verify whether a new regulator set up by the industry met requirements laid out by Lord Justice Leveson after his inquiry into media ethics last year.

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It would monitor the new industry regulator without resorting to legislation and would not involve MPs in press regulation.

The Tories and most of the newspaper industry oppose the introduction of a law to underpin the replacement for the Press Complaints Commission, but the idea of a statute is backed by the Lib Dems, Labour and, in Scotland, the SNP.

Media regulation is devolved and the Scottish Government is currently consulting on a proposal to set up a separate watchdog north of the Border.

But after the Conservative proposal was unveiled yesterday, Downing Street said that it would cover the whole of the UK, not just England and Wales.

A Downing Street source said: “Because it would be a body not underpinned by legislation, it would apply to Scotland, too.

“This would be a sensible solution because there needs to be consistent press regulation across the whole of the UK.”

However, the UK government added that they would engage in talks with the leaders of the devolved administrations if the proposal goes ahead.

Earlier, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said the proposals would allow the Leveson principles to be implemented swiftly and in a practical fashion.

She said: “The Royal Charter … would see the toughest press regulation this country has ever seen, without compromising press freedom.”

A Lib Dem spokesman said: “We have always said our preferred option is to implement what Leveson suggested – a system of independent self-regulation backed by statute.

“But we are also clear that, as both Leveson and the victims have called for, the best outcome would be to move forward with cross-party agreement.”

The Royal Charter is the Tory alternative to Leveson recommendations that a body like Ofcom could be involved in verifying a new watchdog. Conservatives insist it would mean tough regulation without compromising press freedom.

The Hacked Off campaign group, which wants complete implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation, including a statutory basis for any regulatory body, rejected the Charter plan as “a surrender to press pressure”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government set up an expert panel in December to consider how the findings and recommendations of the Leveson Report could be applied in Scotland.

“The panel, which is scheduled to report by the end of March, will consider this proposed draft Charter as part of that work.”