Lord Puttnam: 'I should have been smarter'

The politics of Hollywood didn't prepare Lord Puttnam for the power games in the Palace of Westminster. Raymond Snoddy hears his tale
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The Independent Online

The Labour peer and former film producer Lord Puttnam was celebrating the third Labour victory at the weekend. But although he had been out there doing a little light canvassing for the party he has always supported, in the world of the media he has a few regrets and niggling worries over how the Government has behaved.

The Labour peer and former film producer Lord Puttnam was celebrating the third Labour victory at the weekend. But although he had been out there doing a little light canvassing for the party he has always supported, in the world of the media he has a few regrets and niggling worries over how the Government has behaved.

Lord Puttnam, who chaired the Lords' committee set up to scrutinise the Communications Bill, now believes he was let down by the Government over his crucial "Murdoch clause" - the amendment that would have prevented large national newspaper groups from Five.

During the passage of the Bill, Lord Puttnam put together a coalition of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers that had the power to push the Murdoch amendment through in the Lords.

"I was persuaded to back off because I was persuaded that there had been no discussions whatsoever with any national newspaper group," says the man who produced Chariots of Fire.

"Because I now know that actually wasn't true I will always wonder whether I was naive and being manipulated. It pisses me off that I allowed myself to be manipulated into believing things that I ought to have been smart enough not to believe."

Material obtained under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this year showed that there had been extensive lobbying by national newspaper groups, including News International, on the new cross-media ownership rules. Murdoch and his executives have consistently said they have no interest in buying Five.

As a result, Lord Puttnam believes the Government has put him in a position where he "will not know for many years" whether he did the right thing in backing down and allowing the Government to get its way over the television channel.

Lord Puttnam was talking about broadcasting and his plans for the future after launching the Creative Archive, a joint effort by the BBC, Channel 4, the British Film Institute and the Open University to make film and television programming available to the general public for non-commercial use.

The BBC's role in training, he believes, cannot be emphasised enough.

"With the growth of the independents the BBC is now the industry's trainers and you are never going to change that," says Puttnam.

Naturally the Labour peer also wants greater emphasis on education in the BBC's overall output. "I am going to get my wish according to Mark Thompson (the BBC director-general) so I am a happy bunny," says Puttnam, the former chairman of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

If there are a few lingering regrets from his political involvement Puttnam insists there is only one from his 30-year career in film-making. He has no regrets at all about his notorious two years in Hollywood in charge of Columbia Pictures.

"I may have got a kicking but it allowed me to solidify my views in a way that could not have happened otherwise," says Puttnam, who says he now knows from the inside how poverty-stricken the decision-making in Hollywood frequently is and how little has been done to tackle the costs of the industry. "I am the only non-American ever to have sat in on a MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) meeting. It was like a slave listening to the slave owners," he says.

The one regret was not making more money by producing a few more commercial films in his final years in the industry when the opportunity presented itself. "I made one mistake. I had a fantastic deal with Warner Brothers in the early 1990s but instead of using the deal to think about my pension and what I might want to do with my life I chanced my arm with a couple of movies," Lord Puttnam admits.

He declines to name the two movies which "maybe shouldn't have been made" and were approached in "a slightly idealistic way".

His other life now includes being president of Unicef in the UK but he will also continue trying to persuade the film industry to be more open and generous with its products rather than holding tightly on to its rights and trying desperately to control piracy.

"Rather than moaning about that end of it (piracy) they should get a grip on their own cost base. I got pilloried in 1986 when I said the issue was the cost base," says Puttnam.

He believes it is difficult to believe that Hollywood is being squeezed to the wall when the business has grown from $6bn to $100bn over the past 25 years. During that time Lord Puttnam says costs went up by 676 per cent.

The key to capitalise on the digital opportunity, he believes, will be found by those who find the means "to deliver compelling content in a way that plays to the specific strengths of the online world."

Meanwhile Lord Puttnam now has two projects in mind, both involving the film industry.

One is a book on his days at Columbia. "I have kept good notes," he warns. There is also interest in a television series on his book The Undeclared War, an astringent look at how the US film industry exercises its global dominance.

Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, who says he plans to spend an increasing amount of his time at his home in Co Cork, will none the less also continue trying to scrutinise legislation from the benches of the House of Lords - for as long as he is allowed to.

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