There are times when divergent good intentions produce only bad results.
This could be the effect of some maladroit meddling with the Defamation Bill by the film-maker and Labour peer Lord Puttnam. The Bill, which is close to becoming law, is designed to tighten the definition of libel and end London’s unfortunate reputation as libel capital of the world.
But all hope of reform could now be lost. Lord Puttnam’s bright idea was that, by attaching a couple of amendments to the existing Bill, he could speed up a different and more contentious change: statutory press regulation along lines proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.
For Labour, which favours statute, the purpose was to kill two media birds with one legislative stone. In fact, it looks like killing the Bill instead. While the two provisions can just about be classed together under the broad heading of “media”, there is absolutely no connection between them. And what might appear to be the obvious solution – simply having the offending amendments removed – is more difficult than it might seem.
Once this possibility is excluded, there is stalemate. The Defamation Bill, on which there is broad parliamentary support, is effectively hostage to a measure – the introduction of statutory press regulation – on which there is none. The Prime Minister has spoken persuasively against the statutory element of the regulatory regime proposed by Lord Justice Leveson, while many others insist that nothing less than statute will prevent the excesses his Inquiry uncovered. As ministers, newspapers and existing regulators struggle to find a joint solution, advocates of swift legislation have tried to make the running.
The choice now appears to be between, on the one hand, a considered Defamation Bill coupled with an opportunistic press law or, on the other, no libel reform and no statutory regulation. This is no choice. Those MPs who want libel reform – which is the vast majority – must do their utmost to rescue this Bill.