Press regulation: it's back

 

Just when you thought statutory press regulation had gone quiet, it has erupted back onto the Westminster stage.

While the spotlight was on the Commons gay marriage vote, on Tuesday, their lordships bowled a very nasty googly at the government - by amending the Defamation Bill to include a "Leveson-lite" system for press regulation.

Lords amendments proposed by Labour peer David Puttnam, with cross-party backing from such luminaries as the former Speaker Lady Boothroyd, and the Conservative former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, have written into the bill a "recognition commission," which would ensure any new press arbitration body was properly independent and had the right powers to deal with press malpractice.

The government was defeated over an amendment proposed by Lord Puttnam

Why is this a problem? Lord Leveson wanted "statutory underpinning" for any new system of press regulation which arose from the ashes of the phone-hacking scandal. The industry hates the idea, as do most Conservatives. Labour and the Lib Dems, on the other hand, are very much in favour.

All party talks have been convened to try and come up with a solution they can all sign up to, with Conservative policy guru Oliver Letwin touting the idea of using a Royal Charter rather than legislation to guarantee the quality of any new press regulator. And this has all been dragging on for quite a while.

Insiders in those talks murmur about them becoming a "university seminar", with the industry trying to wring concessions from Mr Letwin as a delaying tactic until the phone hacking hue and cry has died down. But the Lords amendment, passed with a massive 131-vote majority, short circuits those delicate discussions.

The problem with enacting Leveson was always how to bring in a bill, if Conservative minsters didn't want to (I posted on one possible method a while ago) - and amending an existing bill is an elegant solution. And it demonstrates how impatient pro-Leveson peers are becoming.

In fact, what Lord Puttnam has proposed is not the full Levesonian Monty. It's more akin to the Irish system, but it would probably satisfy the pro-regulation factions in Parliament. And the dilemma for the government is what to do about it. Could the changes be reversed at third reading in the Lords, on 25 February? Probably not. If anything, the Lords vote probably understates the support for some kind of regulation, because Lib Dem ministers and many of their peers kept Coalition discipline and voted against…in other circumstances they might vote for a proposal for regulation.

So if the amendment stays, can it be reversed in the Commons? There's probably a pro-regulation majority there, too. To be sure, the vibe on the Conservative benches might be for party unity after the bruising split on gay marriage, but that may well have dissipated by March, when the bill would probably come back before MPs. So it is quite possible to imagine a rainbow coalition across the parties voting down any attempt to kill the Puttnam amendment. (Remember the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems doesn't cover this issue, so a break in collective responsibility would be possible - although every breach of this kind adds to Coalition tensions).

What can the government do? The Letwin proposals for a Royal Charter-based regulation system will be rushed out next week, and if everybody's happy with the package he proposes, the whole problem will dissipate. But if not? The nuclear option would be for the government to drop the whole Defamation Bill, but that would mean abandoning its provisions to give publication more protection from libel actions - something the industry is very keen to see.

So it would have to pay a considerable price to kill Puttnam-style regulation. Otherwise they have to hope that a compromise can be sold to MPs and to the industry. Perhaps the Lords amendments can be amended, and maybe the Crime and Courts Bill might be amended to provide for aggravated damages to be levied on press offenders who don't sign up to the new regulatory regime. (The deadline for any such amendment would also be 25 February.)

Maybe the government can block Lord Puttnam and not provide a compromise, but the lesson from this episode is that the Parliamentary supporters of press regulation are not going to get bored and drift away. On this issue the government (or, more accurately, the Conservatives) do not have a majority in either House - and quite a few bills could be targeted for Puttnam-style amendments, if this particular gambit fails.

 
Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    15 little old me

    Press ethics have been in the gutter for decades .
    Certain media magnates have abused their power for even longer .
    Hacking was one of a number of dirty tactics used .any of which could have formed the basis for an enquirey .
    Probably the timing was more to do with Coulson giving a way to get at Cameron .

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 16.

    8.

    A&B may have some element of truth, although it has to be said that had Labour won the last election, had Murdoch continued to back the New Labour machine, Leveson absolutely, completely totally would NOT have happened. Its motivations were undoubtedly and absolutely partisan.

    and C, I'm afraid is just complete garbage. Starved of funding, my a**e. THIS happened during times of plenty FGS!!

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 15.

    It never went away. Its Leveson by the back door.

    Common Purpose spreading its godforsaken tentacles. The end of the beginning so far as a free press in the UK is concerned. The left might be smug whilst its only Murdoch taking a kicking, but they'll find out... its the thin end of the wedge.

    Common Purpose should be a proscribed organisation and its members interned. They'll be the ruin of us.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 14.

    perhaps all the Tory's saying "there is more important things we should be dooing" should have informed the PM of the weeks parlimentary business?

    The gay marriage vote was a shoe in, the Govt let it's eye off at least one other ball.

    What else did they miss this week?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 13.

    9.mattmatt81


    Most (not all but most) of the evidence against the press, espcially NI has come out since the election.

    Did Lab know some things weren't right? Yes.

    Did they know how bad things were at that point? No

    Was anyone calling for a public enquirery back then? Maybe, but I don;t recall it if they were?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 12.

    Free speech and a free press, these are hallmarks of a free society.
    However, with this freedom comes responsibility.
    Any media outlet that abuses this must pay a high price. Financially and editors/reporters should expect to be sent to jail.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 11.

    Just when you thought that the House of Lords was an anachronism, they start doing what elected politicians ought to be doing and have failed abysmally to do...

    ... and all that people seem to talk about is petty party politics instead of whether proper accountability of the press is a good idea, or not!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 10.

    C / what a wonderfull human being it must be who can write off Hundreds of unnecessary deaths , by saying the other lot are just as bad , then following it up with no evidence . The scandal has not grown exponentially the reporting and union whingeing has .

    You need to take a long hard look at yourself and your party . And face a few facts before you are back in power . Or just blame Thatcher.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 9.

    8 little old me

    A/ no clear ground at all 99% the same only a question of who signs it off .

    B / it was clear from the Millie dowler article that ner phone had been hacked . Gordon Brown himself admired he knew his sons info had been illegaly collected and he was coerced with it .Not to mention Prescott banging on for years
    . Labour knew exactly what was going on and did nothing .
    C . Tbc

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 8.

    3.mattmatt81


    A/. There is a clear difference between Tory & Lab on Leverson

    B/. There was nothing to refuse to investigate pre-election, the scandal only really got going post Coalition

    C/. Whilst Lab have a share of the blame to take, the health scandal has grown exponetitally under the Coalition as hospitals are being starved of funding


    Your myopia is so blatant.........

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 7.

    If you don't want 'libel' action. . . . . . make sure you get your facts straight!

    Simple common sense i'd have thought

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 6.

    There disregard for the citizens of this land and scant regard for it's laws shows they need regulation, They have asked for it, demonstrated they need it. George, slap VAT on them as well

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 5.

    The politicians need the media. The 4th estate.
    The media barons need politicians to emasculate the Leveson report.


    The electioneering has started. These barons will get their way.
    To the disadvantage of mere plebs. Oi polloi. You and me.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 4.

    Did wonder why a galaxy of minister had been parading around the lunch table of Richard Murdoch at a posh London hotel. Did not take them long to forget about hacking and Milly Dowler

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 3.

    There will be press regulation .It will come through parliament .
    All the BBC are trying to do is pretend there is clear ground between Tories and labour . So any result can be dressed up as s milliband victory .
    Ironic as it was millinsnd and his party who refused to investigate hacking when in power .
    More nonsense to divert attention from labours health scandal / massacre

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 2.

    So which myoptic fools thought that the Lords were useless and unnecessary? At least they have the guts to do what the present government avoids. An end to candlelit dinners for the press barons in Oxford perhaps!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1.

    About time somebody did something. The leopard is not going to change its spots, unless it's skinned and stuffed. I presume the press barons want to avoid that grisly fate, as do various politco freeloaders who love rubbing shoulders with them, so they had better work with this. There's plenty of interested/injured parties expecting them to do something along these lines.

 

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