11 March 2013 – In tabling his contentious amendments to the Defamation Bill Lord Puttnam made clear that they were “designed to break that terrible silence” which had come over formal discussions of Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for a new regulatory regime to improve ‘the culture, ethics and practice of the press’.
He was certainly not the only one who feared that David Cameron’s hasty retreat from an equally hasty pre-inquiry commitment to implement Leveson’s proposals in full meant that, yet again, an opportunity to curb abuses of power by the press would be lost.
Lord Puttnam spoke of his amendments offering an “opportunity to break the logjam that would appear to have afflicted both the talks between the newspapers and the Government and the talks between the three main political parties themselves.”
His notion – to introduce a system of arbitration which would make it easier for ordinary members of the public to seek redress, and favour those publishers who made use of its services by removing the risk of prohibitive costs – mirrored Leveson’s proposals to improve access to justice, albeit in a somewhat different context.
Supporting the amendments, Lord Fowler made the precise point that if passed they would “serve notice on the Government that this is one of the areas where we want progress.”
He went on to explain that Lord Puttnam had his support “because the present way of dealing with the Leveson proposals is woefully inadequate. It has brought nothing forward, although everyone at the time said how urgent it was to make progress. The process itself is open to severe objection.”
Few would disagree with that. What has emerged from the secret talks between ministers and the industry is a Royal Charter offering the industry carte blanche to set up PCC Mark II, the appointments panel for which will be decided by three peers, one Dame and two journalists from the Murdoch stable (Simon Jenkins was on the News International payroll until 2008) selected by former PCC Director Lord Black and current PCC chair Lord Hunt.
Lord Black, of PressBof and the Telegraph Groups, told Lord Puttnam there was no need for his amendments because the newspaper industry favoured a Leveson-style arbitration body anyway. But he was swiftly contradicted in the debate by his colleague Lord Hunt who said: “I am sure that there was no intention to mislead, but that is not the case, because it is the proposed arbitral arm that is dividing the industry.”
And so it has proved. An arbitration system may save the publishers’ legal fees, but it will also allow the public a chance to challenge press powers. And some sections of the press are not too keen on that.
So the Puttnam amendments helped to expose the two-faced nature of the industry’s response to Leveson, and to remind the government of its responsibility to defend the rights of the citizenry against the power of the press. Job done, Lord Puttnam – you have fired a warning shot across the bows.
But we need defamation reform too. David Cameron should not drop the Bill, but remove the amendments and insist that any new regulatory system for the press will not pass muster unless it includes a proficient arbitration body.