SNP wary of harsh Scottish press reforms

ALEX Salmond is unlikely to push ahead with a plan to compel newspapers and online publishers to be part of a hardline press regulation regime, it emerged last night.

SNP ministers are understood to be wary of a key recommendation in a report led by Lord McCluskey to make regulation mandatory, a move that goes well beyond Lord Leveson’s call for a voluntary system following the phone hacking scandal.

Lawyers warned that the measures could be open to a challenge from the European Court of Human Rights, which enshrines the right to free speech.

Media lawyer Alistair Bonnington, BBC Scotland’s former head of counsel, said the measures could result in Scottish ministers being summoned before a court.

“It is highly likely the McCluskey proposals are so draconian as to offend against the European Convention’s provisions on free speech,” he said.

He said that if Scotland wanted to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights, “we can’t pass these proposals into law”.

Bonnington also warned that the proposed regulations would extend as far as foreign media groups, who could fall foul of complaints if their material was read in Scotland.

He added: “As jurisdiction for litigation and legal regulation is established in our law by the ability to read the publication in Scotland, they are in effect saying that Scotland is to rule the world on media regulation.”

Salmond described the report on Friday as “admirably clear”, but also emphasised that he remained supportive of a “voluntary regulatory body”.

He said he will take time to consider the report, but it now seems unlikely he will support the plans in full.

However, ministers will wait for the outcome of tomorrow’s crunch vote in the House of Commons when David Cameron faces the prospect of a damaging defeat on the future of press regulation.

An alliance of Lib Dem and Labour MPs, together with Tory rebels, could defeat the Conservatives to introduce a new Royal Charter which would give new regulatory powers to have final say over a new code of conduct for the press.

Yesterday, independent MSP Margo MacDonald joined calls to hold back from a new press law. “The press has had a good shake-up and there has to be improvements. I suspect that press freedom is just an absolute that cannot be watered down,” she said.

However, members of the McCluskey group hit back yesterday, insisting that the impact of their plans had been exaggerated.

David Sinclair, the director of communications at Victim Support, said it was “arrant nonsense” to claim that the group were attacking press freedom.

He also warned against a voluntary scheme. “Unless members are required to be part of the system then there is no system, and then the first time it takes a view which they disagree with, they can opt out. Leveson said it was a last-chance saloon and there shouldn’t be another drink,” he said.

Salmond’s aides have limited themselves to describing the report as “interesting”, suggesting that the government may hold back from implementing it in full.

They have also described as “ridiculous” claims by the Conservatives that the McCluskey report amounted to a “shameless attempt” by Salmond to “shackle” a free press in Scotland in the run-up to the referendum.

As it prepares for the referendum – for which the date will be announced later this week – it has now emerged that the SNP is to publish its own pro-independence newsletter before the referendum.

In a letter to SNP supporters last week, Salmond declared: “We’ve drawn up plans to produce a campaign publiction, similar to Saltire in 2011, which was so well received by activists and voters.”

The letter says he intends to send the newsletter to “every home in Scotland”.