Press gobbles up the carrots but runs away from the sticks
The Defamation Bill is in danger of being lost. The person responsible for this is David Cameron
The Bill, which has been under consideration for three years now, is a vital reform which would remove many of the legal constraints on press freedom that are currently suffered by genuine investigative journalists. Its loss would be a greater blow to press freedom than any of the rhetorical hot air that has been release by the proprietors and editors since the start of the Leveson Inquiry.
The Bill ensures that claimants should demonstrate “serious harm” and it makes it far harder for corporations to bring cases against those who investigate their behaviour. It also provides protection to scientific journals ending the anomaly whereby a researcher can be sued for academic criticism that is deemed not to be in the interest of a corporation or an interest group.
It is now being held hostage by the very people who stand most to benefit from it: proprietors and editors who are more than happy to take the carrot (of improved defamation rules) but refuse even to contemplate the stick (of a system of low cost arbitration based in law).
Amendments to the Bill laid by Lord Puttnam, Lord Mackay, Baroness Boothroyd and Baroness Scotland, and passed by a majority of the House of Lords, are being used as an excuse to let the Government and the press off the Leveson hook
The intention of those amending the Defamation Bill was never to wreck it, but rather to force the Government into bringing forward legislation that would enact the Leveson recommendations. Cameron has found it more convenient to sacrifice a Bill that has very wide cross-party support, rather than do anything that might upset the newspaper barons and the editors.
So those who really need legal protection—for example journalists and scientists who are investigating wrong-doing or exposing charlatans—find that their needs are being sacrificed in order to shelter news organizations whose main imperative is to protect their freedom to publish gossip about celebrities.
The editors and proprietors could have put pressure on Cameron to produce a Press Bill that would have cross-party support. The amendments to the Defamation Bill would have been removed immediately and the Bill would have passed into law.
The fact that they have not done so demonstrates what really matters to them. They are more concerned to prevent the establishment of a free, easy access tribunal system and a right of reply for complainants, than they are to protect genuine investigative journalism.