Bishops back defamation proposal

08 February 2013


Man of means: the  X Factor judge Louis Walsh, on his way into court for his defamation case against Rupert Murdoch's News Group Newspapers, in November last year. Mr Walsh settled a 500,000 euro (£403,500) defamation action out of court in Ireland, over a story based on an unfounded sex assault allegation 

Man of means: the  X Factor judge Louis Walsh, on his way into court for his defamation case against Rupert Mur...

THE Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, was among six bishops who delivered a blow to the Government on Tuesday by backing the introduction of an arbitration service to tackle defamation claims, a recommendation of the Leveson report.

The proposal was made as an amendment to the Defamation Bill by Lord Puttnam, who spoke of a "terrible silence" in the wake of the publication of Lord Justice Leveson's report in November ( News, 30 November): "I believe that we . . . have an obligation to act, and to be seen to act, on behalf of victims past, present, and future." The Bill looked "almost as if Leveson never happened" and had "absolutely nothing to say about access to justice or the costs of seeking that justice in the courts, all of which is plainly unaffordable except for the very wealthy". The Government should introduce the arbitration system outlined by Lord Justice Leveson, staffed by independent legal experts, and free for complainants to use, he said. This would "allow ordinary people to get redress if they are defamed under the new definitions that we are passing into law".

Dr Sentamu said that he was "attracted" to the proposed system "because the preacher from Galilee said that, if you have a dispute with your neighbour, it is better to try to settle it before you go to court, because when you go to court you may find yourself being given such a stiff sentence that you end up losing doubly."

Lord Hunt of Wirral, who chairs the Press Complaints Commission, said that he had seen "no evidence of delay" in cross-party talks on the future of press regulation, and a "considerable degree of consensus on accepting the architecture proposed by Lord Justice Leveson", but that the proposed arbitral arm was "dividing the industry", with some local and regional editors fearing "a whole new class of what they describe as potentially ruinous actions". The House of Lords "should not start imposing detailed, prescriptive clauses that are not in Lord Justice Leveson's report".

The Minister of State for Justice, Lord McNally, said that "the media still have a long way to go before there is any sense of trust in what they are doing to rectify the harm that they have done to our body politic," but that "a cross-party approach was the best way to ensure that a consensus could be reached on these contentious issues." A draft royal charter proposal on press regulation would be published next week.

The amendment was passed by 272 to 141, with rebellions from prominent Conservative peers.

Lord Skidelsky, a crossbencher, said that introducing the Leveson report "by the back door" was "an important merit of the Bill because we are unlikely to get Leveson through the front door".

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