Midland peers have clashed with some of Britain’s leading authors over their attempt to bring in newspaper regulation by linking it to reforms of the libel law.
Writers including Stephen Fry, Tom Stoppard and Sir Salman Rushdie have condemned their actions as “reckless”.
Lord Fowler, the former MP for Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham, and Lady Boothroyd, the former MP for West Bromwich West, backed laws which would implement many of Lord Leveson’s recommendations for an independent press regulator backed by statute.
Lord Leveson published his findings in November following an inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, prompted partly by the phone hacking scandal, but party leaders have so far been unable to agree on how they can be implemented.
Peers in the House of Lords took matters into their own hands by adding amendments to the Government’s Defamation Law, which would put many of Lord Leveson’s proposals into effect.
The Bill itself has cross-party support, as well as the support of a number of authors. It is designed to give publishers more protection from legal action, and would bar anyone from bringing a libel case unless they could show serious harm had been done.
But the Government is now saying it will refuse to make time for the Bill to be heard in the House of Commons unless it can be sure the amendments will be overturned.
As David Cameron cannot count on Liberal Democrat support in any vote on the amendments, the Bill is currently in limbo and may be scrapped entirely. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has backed Lord Leveson’s proposals for press regulation while Mr Cameron has opposed them.
A number of authors have written to the party leaders urging them to find a way to save the Bill – and criticising the actions of peers who added the amendment as “reckless”.
A letter signed by authors including Stephen Fry, Sir Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Tom Stoppard, said: “The Defamation Bill is not a suitable vehicle for the wider proposals of press regulation – as Lord Justice Leveson himself noted, libel did not form part of his terms of reference.
“It is therefore entirely inappropriate, and even reckless, for libel reform to be sacrificed to the current political stalemate. The Bill offers an opportunity for reform that we cannot afford to miss.”
Signatories also included Julian Barnes, Michael Frayn, Antonia Fraser, David Hare and Ali Smith, William Boyd and Will Self. The letter was organised by free speech campaigning group English PEN and sent to the leaders of all three major parties.
Calls to reform libel laws have been prompted by concern than the UK has become the world’s “libel capital”, with cases being bought here simply because complaints have more chance of winning.
But peers including Lord Fowler and Lady Boothroyd have argued that press regulation is also essential.
Explaining why he backed the amendments in the Lords last month, Lord Fowler said: “First, the Leveson report was published at the end of November. Since then, we have waited and waited for action, but, instead, some newspapers, sensing a weakness of intent, have continued to attack Leveson in the most lurid and extreme manner, and often quite inaccurately.
“I very much hope that by passing the amendment, which would set up an arbitration service, as proposed by Leveson, it would at once establish the truth of Leveson – that it is to the benefit of the public, and... to the benefit of the press.
"Indeed, the amendment is quite obviously to the benefit of the press. In other words, it inserts truth for the kind of smears that we have been all too used to over the past months.”
Lady Boothroyd said: “Who among us is proud of the way in which newspapers are now perceived? I believe that the amendments before us would help the newspaper industry to re-establish itself as that trusted investigator it once was, bringing the news to the nation fearlessly and accurately and holding us all to account.”
The amendments supported by the peers would bring some of Lord Leveson’s most important recommendations into effect by setting out what a press regulator should look like, for example by stating that no serving newspaper editors should sit on the board.
Newspapers would be expected to create the regulator themselves and a commission established by the Lord Chief Justice would then decide whether the regulator met the criteria set out in statute.
Once the new regulator had been approved by the Lord Chief Justice, judges would be free to impose extra damages on newspapers which refused to join and were successfully sued, while being more lenient on those which were members of the regulatory system.