Oliver LetwinOn 25 February 2013 the Defamation Bill had its Third Reading in the House of Lords.  A number of amendments were made to the Bill.  These included the controversial “Puttnam amendments” which introduced a new clause 2, entitled “Arbitration Service for defamation and related civil claims against members of Independent Regulatory Board“.  This contains a slimmed down partial version of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for media regulation.

These amendments were passed by a very substantial cross-party majority but they are not acceptable to the Government.  When the business of the House of Commons was announced on 28 February 2013, the Defamation Bill was not included.  The Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, said

“while the so-called Puttnam amendment was amended further at that stage, the amendment is still unacceptable. On that basis, I hope that an agreement will be reached that will enable us to proceed with the Bill without that amendment and to deal with Leveson properly“.

“Conservative sources” have told the press that David Cameron will not allow the bill to go forward because of the Puttnam amendments.

The last week has seen a strong public campaign by supporters of the Defamation Bill to try to persuade the politicians to take steps to ensure that it will be passed.  In a widely publicised open letter to the party leaders, a group of writers and members of English PEN argued that “The Defamation Bill is not a suitable vehicle for the wider proposals of press regulation,” urging the leaders to ensure the bill is passed.

David Allen Green published a piece entitled “The Defamation Bill does not need this “Leveson amendment“on his New Statesman blog, arguing that “Clause 2 should now be voted down by the Commons, and the rest of the Defamation Bill be enacted without any delay“.

Separately, a group of media academics and the general secretary of the NUJ have urged the prime minister now “to announce a Leveson bill that would have cross-party support.

It appears that, despite these campaigns the Government is continuing to refuse to bring the Defamation Bill back to the Commons unless it has an assurance that supporters of the Leveson Report will agree to the removal of Clause 2.  This, in turn, appears to depend on the successful resolution of the “Cross Party Talks” on Leveson which last week were reported to be “stalled“.

There have, however, been a number of signs of movement over recent days.  First of all, on Thursday 7 March 2013, cross bench peer Lord Skidelsky put down a “Leveson amendment” to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill – to be considered at the Report stage on 18 March 2013.  This led to a Daily Mail article entitled “Max Mosley’s friend in the Lords plots a Leveson law by the back door“.  According to the Mail, Lord Skidelsky “has been condemned for hijacking a key Government Bill” – although the source of the condemnation was not identified.  This week a second name was added to the amendment, the Bishop of Wakefield.

On Sunday 10 March 2013 the Guardian reported that

MPs demanding implementation of the Leveson report recommendations are planning to table amendments to the Crime and Courts bill this week in an attempt to put pressure on David Cameron to accept statutory underpinning of a new press regulator.

The Crime and Courts Bill is another important piece of legislation which is due to have its Third Reading in the Commons next week.

If “Leveson amendments” are added to either of the two bills mentioned then it seems likely that there would be cross party agreement on the removal of clause 2 of the Defamation Bill and that the Government would then return it to the House of Commons so that it can be passed into law before the conclusion of the Parliamentary session.  This view has been supported by the campaigning group Hacked Off which said in a statement on Monday 11 March 2013

“Hacked Off believes that if the amendments to the ERR Bill are passed, the Defamation Bill amendments on Leveson would become redundant and could be removed to facilitate the continued passage of the Defamation Bill, which Hacked Off fully supports”.

In an interesting new development today, the Independent, the Guardian and the Financial Times have broken ranks with the other editors and have called for a new press approach to the Leveson recommendations.

The Financial Times’ editorial is entitled “Time for sensible press compromise” which concludes that “What is now needed is a practical gesture of goodwill to break the deadlock and avoid a sweeping press law”.

The Guardian has an editorial entitled “Leveson: a public inquiry demands a public debate” which concludes

The press finds it difficult to report on its own affairs – hence the curious silence over the past few months, as its representatives have tried to negotiate an agreement with one party in government. This is now bound to change. To be clear, we are strongly opposed to some of the measures being proposed by politicians – such as the threat of exemplary damages to news organisations that remain outside regulation. At the same time we don’t believe a press veto on appointments could be acceptable to MPs or to an independent appointments panel. But a public inquiry demands a public response and a public debate. The derailing of parliamentary bills through Leveson amendments is clumsy and blunt – but it is forcing the issue into the open where it belongs.

The Independent has an editorial entitled “Time for the media to find a compromise on Leveson recommendations“.  This concludes

To continue with the current modus operandi would be counter-productive. Campaigners in favour of statutory legislation are already calling for a rejection of all “press-led” initiatives and the immediate adoption of the Leveson proposals. Meanwhile, frustrated parliamentarians are wrecking otherwise good laws by adding unrelated media-regulation clauses in an attempt to force through draconian measures by the back door.

Britain needs a media watchdog that protects individuals and press freedoms alike. That means the industry building bridges and hammering out a compromise – and doing so in public. Time is running out

The Guardian has reported that this is “widely being billed as a critical week in the drawn out talks on Leveson“, with the three main party leaders likely to meet on Tuesday 12 March 2103 “if all-party talks at a lower level due on Monday manage to secure a breakthrough“.

On Monday evening it was reported that talks about the future of press regulation were going on late into Monday night, with the three main parties said to be hopeful of agreeing a deal in the next 48 hours.  However, later reports suggested that the talks were at risk of collapsing and the position remains unclear.  It seems likely that there will be fuller reports in the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times over the next few days.