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We must protect press freedoms

Last night, The Herald and our sister title the Sunday Herald were once again among the newspapers honoured for journalistic excellence at the Scottish Press Awards.

This annual celebration of the best of Scottish journalism is a precious reminder of the role reporters, writers, editors and photographers play in holding the powerful to account.

Most members of the public need little persuading of the value of a free press. The freedom for newspapers to break stories in the public interest that rock governments and board rooms, thereby forcing reform, is a crucially important guarantor of healthy democracy. Many believe journalists have been allowed to get out of control and it is well documented that some undeniably have. Nevertheless, the responsible majority in journalism should not be punished unfairly for the excesses of the few. At its best (and most of the time it is), the press is the instrument of the people, questioning authority, challenging complacency and frequently uncovering abuses in the public interest. It is no doubt for this reason polling shows the overwhelming majority of people do not favour politicians having the final say over press regulation.

Yet that is precisely what threatens. The new system of regulation underpinned by Royal Charter agreed by the three main Westminster parties last October effectively introduces the means for state control of the press. It is not the setting up of a powerful independent press regulation body that newspapers oppose, nor the fact that it could issue penalties of up to £1 million; victims of bad behaviour need swift and effective redress, and that is readily accepted. It is that it would be overseen by a body appointed by Privy Councillors (largely senior politicians) and that the whole system could be overridden by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Make no mistake, this poses a serious threat to free speech. Membership is supposedly "voluntary" but publications that did not join would face much higher legal costs going to court. It is not hard to see how newspapers, especially in the parts of the UK where financial margins are tight, could be cowed from publishing controversial information that is in the public interest.

A much better alternative is that discussed yesterday by Lord Black at the Scottish Newspaper Society. More than 90% of newspaper publishers across the UK have signed up to an Independent Press Standards Organisation. It would be markedly different from the Press Complaints Commission. The industry would have no control over appointments to it. It would have a firm basis in civil law, unlike the PCC, and powers to undertake investigations where there was evidence of a breakdown in ethical standards, with any paper found in breach at risk of being fined up to £1m.

This system, which effectively makes the Government's Royal Charter system redundant, answers public calls for a powerful, independent regulator able to act against transgressors, but upholds the crucial right to freedom of expression.

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