As one who spoke and voted for Lord Puttnam’s amendments to the Defamation Bill passed in the Lords on February 6, may I say that Matthew Parris’s attack on the amendments misses the point. The Puttnam amendments remedy two major omissions from the Bill: its failure to deal with the question of costs and its failure to prevent the publication of things which may be true, but whose publication has no sufficient reason.
What is the point of new libel laws if less than 1 per cent of the population can afford them? Legal aid has never been available for libel, and it was essential to incorporate Lord Justice Leveson’s arbitral system into the Bill to give those whose rights have been infringed free access to justice.
The arbitral system was equally necessary to deal with breach of privacy. Redress after the event does not right the wrong, because the issue is not about whether the press were lying but whether they had sufficient reason for publishing the story. So damages for invasion of privacy do nothing to protect the plaintiff’s reputation or family life, which an award for damages for lying would do.
Leveson’s proposed system of arbitration suggests a way of dealing with both sets of problems. It offers protection against libel by giving access to justice for individuals with limited resources, while newspapers would see their legal costs plummet. And it offers protection for privacy by setting up incentives for newspapers to think very carefully before publishing a story.
If the regulator gave a green light, the newspaper would be protected. But if the nespaper published without seeking advice or ran the story without advice from the regulator, it would be at risk of exemplary damages.
Leveson’s system of arbitration is entiely voluntary; a newspaper could insist on going to court, but would then be at risk of paying the costs of both sides as well as exemplary damages.
It was the purpose of Lord Puttnam’s amendments to make sure that this central machinery of Leveson is part of any improved system of press self-regulation. Statutory backing for arbitration is necessary to enable the regulator to award exemplary damages. Without them, there is no incentive for the newspapers to accept arbitration which is quick, free and fair to the victim.