UK GOVERNMENT plans to regulate the press through a Royal Charter have been branded rule by “decree” which would please dictators like Robert Mugabe, by a former High Court judge.
Former High Court judge Lord McCluskey, who led an expert group which devised a Scottish version of the Leveson report proposals, said Scotland had been “totally ignored” in the process, which may be extended across the UK.
The former solicitor general told MSPs on Holyrood’s culture committee that the Royal Charter option only emerged after talks between the Tory hierarchy and the press, but he insisted any new regime on press regulation should face the scrutiny of politicians in parliament.
The coalition government at Westminster wants to use the unusual tool of a Royal Charter, which effectively means the plans are just signed off by the Queen, to implement the key measures of the Leveson report into press abuses such as phone hacking.
But Lord McCluskey told MSPs on Holyrood’s education and culture committee: “That decision is one that ought to be taken by the elected parliament who is within the range of this body – not by a Royal Charter.
“That ought to be looked at by the legislature, not decided in smoke-filled rooms – or pizza-filled rooms, I think it is nowadays – of the Privy Council.”
He added: “Putin and Mugabe must be rubbing their hands with glee at the idea you can just issue a decree by which you determine all these rules.
“What a terrible example for us to offer to the world to bypass the legislature in all these matters – that it should be done by the unelected head of state.”
Press regulation is under the control of the Scottish Parliament, but First Minister Alex Salmond is believed to be looking at a UK-wide solution after the McCluskey report attracted criticism with its call for a stricter regime in Scotland, including mandatory regulation.
A Royal Charter will not go through Holyrood, Lord McCluskey said, and MSPs will not be able to scrutinise its impact through the usual system of a legislative consent motion.
MSPs were warned they would be “denied a voice” on key issues, such as which media organisations would be covered by any new regulatory body.
Scotland was “totally ignored” in discussions about the Royal Charter, Lord McCluskey added.
“Scotland was not consulted,” he said.
Members of his expert group were not invited to the discussions, and nor were Scottish editors, he said.
“Scotland was totally ignored in all deliberations, even by the Labour Party, which is strong in Scotland.”
Lord Leveson did not mention a Royal Charter. It was first raised in February after press representatives “laid down red lines to Conservative party negotiators”, the former judge said.
Lord McCluskey also defended the findings of his own expert group into a Scottish version of the Leveson findings after concerns were raised at plans for compulsory regulation of the country’s newspapers.
He said the prospect of newspapers enjoying an opt-out, as Leveson recommends, would “never produce an effective system”.
The expert group even produced draft legislation for a system north of the Border which shows “we can do it in Scotland”.