Scottish independence: What you shouldn't tweet about if you want to avoid jail today

Rules set out in the Scottish Referendum Act make clear that all media organisations cannot publish any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted

The media has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for the way it has reported the lead-in to today’s historic vote. It is an oddity of the system of media regulation in the UK that different rules apply to broadcasters and to ‘the press’ in the arena of election coverage, even though a division of those camps is increasingly anachronistic.

Now that the polls have opened, broadcasters are prohibited from discussing and analysing referendum issues and cannot do so again until voting is concluded. You will hear plenty of news about the weather but you won’t find the Beeb discussing Andy Murray’s views on the future of the Union.

The print media, by contrast, operates under fewer constraints and there is plenty of debate in this morning’s papers about the key issues.

 

However, some rules – as set out in the Scottish Referendum Act – are common to all media and, indeed, extend beyond its boundaries. If you’re tweeting today, you might want to bear the following in mind, on pain of a possible prison sentence.  “No person”, says the Act in its section on Exit Polls, “may publish before the close of the poll…any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted…where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted”.  The publication of any forecast based on such information is also prohibited.

And if you are in any doubt about what “publish” means in this context, the Act helpfully makes clear that it is “to make available to the public at large (or any section of the public) in whatever form and by whatever means”. In short, that includes social media. One word in this part of the Act which might have the potential to confuse is the reference to “voters” in the plural. Telling the world about how you yourself have voted might be acceptable; but to find out and then publish how everyone on your street has done is not.  Large-scale retweeting of news from others who have voted may be risky.  

Quite how rigorously the Act will be interpreted and enforced remains of course to be seen.  But jail is almost certainly no more pleasant in an independent Scotland than a United Kingdom.