The Director of the Scottish Newspaper Society has become the latest leading figure in the media to warn against the Scottish government’s new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.
John McLellan, Scottish Newspaper Society director and former editor of The Scotsman, has criticised proposed new laws that states any person carrying out an action “likely” to stir up hatred would be committing an offence irrespective of their intention.
McLellan’s comments, made in a column for The Scotsman, follow concerns raised by the UK’s Society of Editors of the stifling effect on press freedom the proposed new law will have if it comes into being.
In his column, McLellan says the new law could lead to criminal action being taken against newspaper columnists by political activists who disagree with their views.
He writes: “It is one of the most common criticisms of the UK’s Press regulation system that hundreds of third party complaints from pressure groups and campaigns about the views of columnists are dismissed every year because the regulator regards adjudicating on taste and decency as counter to freedom of expression, yet the legislation would take these complaints out of the hands of a non-statutory regulator into those of the police.”
He added: “Be it mainstream publications, social media, pamphleteering, theatre or political debate, it’s not so much the chances of convictions but the opportunity for targeted disruption through the legal process which is the problem.
“It is very easy to use the old line of “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear”, but the very process of proving there has been no wrong-doing or justifying what has been written or said is in itself an infringement of freedom of expression.”
McLellan’s comments follow news that the Society of Editors is to write to the Scottish Government expressing grave concerns over the proposed new law.
The proposed new measures would create several new categories where the communication – including reporting – of any material considered threatening or abusive under a raft of criteria would risk prosecution.
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, which has members throughout the whole of the UK, said earlier this month: “These proposals, while on the surface designed to protect vulnerable people, have the potential to usher in draconian measures where a host of pressure groups will be able to stifle or close down debate on important issues.”
“And although these are designed for Scotland, any media organisation that publishes or broadcasts north of the border could find themselves caught up or at the very least there will be a chill placed on their work.
“Looking to the future, there is also the risk that any draconian measures adopted by the Scottish government will be taken up in other parts of the UK, particularly in England and Wales where The Law Commission is currently consulting on a possible expansion in English hate-crime law.”
The Society has now written to Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf to express its concerns.