Ian Burrell: Popular to pariah... how Lord Puttnam killed the historic Defamation Bill
Media Studies: The Defamation Bill faces being thrown onto the scrapheap – because of one man
David Puttnam's work on the Oscar-winning feature The Killing Fields made him a popular figure among journalists. The film producer – and former advertising man – moulded the stories of the New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, the American photojournalist Al Rockoff (and to a lesser degree The Sunday Times staffer Jon Swain) to create a powerful representation of the task of the war reporter.
But nearly 30 years after that stirring treatment of the war in Cambodia, Puttnam now sits in the House of Lords as something of a pariah figure in the eyes of the news media. His amendment to the historic Defamation Bill threatens to make the role of all journalists – including citizen reporters and amateur bloggers – much more difficult and risky.
It is nearly three years since I had long conversations with Lord Puttnam's fellow peer Anthony Lester, the veteran human rights lawyer, about his dream of achieving the first significant changes to Britain's arcane libel laws since the 19th century. "This is not a law for the media, I want to emphasise that," he assured me at the time.
Lord Lester's reforms are intended to ensure that British defamation laws are no longer a source of national embarrassment, drawing opprobrium from the United Nations and prompting America to pass legislation to protect its citizens from the courts in London, the libel tourism capital of the world. The Bill had the backing of academic groups such as Sense About Science, which sought to protect those who wrote papers that challenged the medical establishment or questioned the claims of big pharmaceutical companies. Most of all it was championed by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and had the backing of all three parties.
The Bill today reaches its third reading in the House of Lords. Lord Lester – who has dedicated himself to fighting discrimination on grounds of race, gender and sexuality – should be on the point of realising another great ambition. Instead, he is bracing himself for what he calls "a major tragedy". Because after years of dedicated work from respected freedom of speech groups, such as Index on Censorship and English PEN, the Bill faces being thrown onto the scrapheap – because of Lord Puttnam, a supposed media luvvie.
The film producer's late introduction of amendments to the Defamation Bill was intended to be a signal of democracy in action. Frustrated at the Government's apparent defiance of the will of Parliament by its failure to implement Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for reform of the press, Lord Puttnam, a Labour peer, tried a flanking manoeuvre. He inserted into the libel legislation a clause backing a "defamation recognition commission" overseeing a "specialist arbitration service" designed to compel newspapers to sign up to a new press regulator with statutory underpinning and an appointments panel headed by the Lord Chief Justice.
Puttnam went much further than Leveson. He called for publishers to face "exemplary damages" if they had not secured "pre-clearance" for stories from "a recognised independent regulatory system". Effectively, this would mean news organisations having to submit controversial stories to an official body for vetting or risk receiving extreme fines in the courts.
The former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has denied he was responsible for the ploy. "It wasn't drafted by a freedom of speech or human rights lawyer," commented Lord Lester ruefully. By 272 votes to 141, the amendment was enthusiastically voted through by an Upper House anxious to send a warning to the Government over its hesitant response to Leveson.
Jo Glanville, director of the worldwide writers' association English PEN, has been dismayed by the film producer's actions. "It's a real disaster," she says. In the internet era, every Twitter or Facebook user is a potential libel defendant. "This really does affect everyone," she said. "For Puttnam to characterise this as a newspaper interests bill is just rubbish – it is very much a civil liberties, citizens and scientists bill but it has been caught in the crossfire of Leveson."
Today Lord Fowler will present a further amendment to the Bill which aims to remove the most extreme, story-vetting, element of the Puttnam amendment, which Glanville described as "deeply illiberal".
The Conservatives have pledged to block Puttnam's measures but their means to do so are limited. They remain hopeful that Labour and the Liberal Democrats can be won round to their idea of a Royal Charter to implement Leveson without the need for a new press regulator to be backed by statute. But there is a strong possibility that the contaminated Defamation Bill – after so much planning – will end up being slung out by the Commons. Padraig Reidy, of Index on Censorship, complained of a "deliberate conflation" of two separate issues – libel and privacy – and admitted "we could end up with nothing".
For Lord Lester, 76, who cut his teeth as a lawyer campaigning against racism in the southern states of America, seeing his work destroyed by people he considered to be fellow liberals would be a bitter pill. "I'm disappointed by some of my friends doing this," he said. "I'm anxious that they should remove their tanks from the lawn." But those tanks may not have a reverse gear.
It's no joke: America's top prankster comes to London
The huge Advertising Week festival, normally held in New York, makes its debut in London next month and Lord Puttnam is on the bill. But he won't be the only scourge of the news media among speakers addressing the 15,000 international delegates.
Beware of Joey Skaggs, king of American pranksters. He looks like an escapee from ZZ Top and thinks of himself as a social activist, although hoaxer might be the description favoured by some news organisations.
Among his victims have been the chat show host Geraldo Rivera, the New York paper The Village Voice and the ABC network, which he persuaded to cover a fake story about "dog bordellos" or "a cat house for dogs". He hired actors with pooches and staged a "theatrical performance" to give the story more legs. Skaggs later received a subpoena for running an immoral business and ABC won an award for its documentary, even though the brothel was a fiction.
Skaggs began his career protesting against the Vietnam War and has since campaigned against such issues as genetic engineering (hatching a hoax plan to create "addictive poultry") and health kicks (promoting a cockroach vitamin pill in his own tribute to Kafka's Metamorphosis). He says his intention is to improve "media literacy" and he arrives in this country at a timely moment.
The newsreaders who just can't help giving the game away
The "look away now" warning on television news bulletins, given when the football results are to be revealed ahead of the broadcast of match highlights, has become as familiar to viewers as Trevor McDonald's old "And finally" sign off.
But in an era where there is no escape from texts and tweets, and when football is considered big news, it's time to consign it to history – as Julie Etchingham and Mark Austin of ITV News demonstrated last week. Having directed eyes away from the screen for the reveal of Arsenal's Champions League result (shown after the news), the golden couple segued into a feature on "tomorrow's newspaper front pages" and an image of the cover of The Sun, which was emblazoned with the Arsenal score.
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