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.

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.

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