John McLellan: Press regulation goes too far

The phone hacking controversy has brought press regulation to centre stage.
The phone hacking controversy has brought press regulation to centre stage.
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It is highly unlikely a newspaper article will ever cause you a personal problem, but in the future here’s what can happen if it does.

If you can’t resolve your difficulty, you will be able take your complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation. IPSO officers will look at the facts, investigate and try to find a solution.

Evening News'John McLellan'Pic Neil Hanna

Evening News'John McLellan'Pic Neil Hanna

If that’s not possible, your case will go to its complaints board – which can not only order the paper to publish a correction, but dictate where it must be published. That may well be on the front page.

If it is discovered the mistake was less than innocent and forms part of a pattern which the paper has failed to tackle, IPSO has the power to impose a fine. In the worst cases, where wilful wrong-doing has been allowed to continue, the fine can be as much as £1 million.

And with all newspaper firms facing substantial commercial challenges, this won’t be taken lightly.

But IPSO won’t have to wait for a reader to raise an objection. If its officers are suspicious about the way a story has been produced they will be able to launch an investigation without waiting for a complaint to arise.

Further, IPSO will be seeing if a new arbitration system is possible so that people who have suffered real damage as a result of a story – thankfully very rare in Scotland – can seek compensation without the considerable expense of going to court.
The IPSO board will have no serving newspaper figures but will have a majority of non-industry representatives. Further, newspapers will be kept away from the direct appointments to the board.

Now, you would be forgiven for thinking this is something newspapers will do their best to avoid. You might also think it’s what the government wants to impose on publishers after the phone-hacking scandal.

But, in fact, this is the very system the newspaper industry wants to impose upon itself; which it is willing to fund to the tune of £2.5m a year.

The UK government wants all of this and more, but crucially it also wants to give politicians the power to change the system under which newspapers and magazines operate if they so wish.

By giving both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments the ability to interfere with regulation of the press, freedom of speech and expression is under threat in this country as never before.

In the United States, what is being proposed here would be illegal. But last week, the UK government decided to forge ahead with its own plan for press regulation and rejected the IPSO plan without any discussion. The system I described above has been deemed unacceptable by Whitehall.

Now, it is not as if the newspaper industry isn’t already subject to the laws of the land. The Contempt of Court, the Bribery Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act to name but four all have an effect on how journalists go about their business.

Phone hacking was and is against the law and a journalist and investigator have already gone to jail.

However, what the government now proposes would allow politicians to have ultimate control over every word you read in this paper. We cannot let that happen.

John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and former editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications.