Media: Plurality — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 7th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 3:06 pm, 7th March 2012

To ask Her Majesty's Government what proposals they have for ensuring media plurality in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Government will outline high-level thinking on media ownership and plurality in the forthcoming communications Green Paper and have commissioned a report from Ofcom on these matters to be delivered in June 2012. As noble Lords will be aware, the Leveson inquiry will also report on matters related to media plurality and any recommendations will be considered as part of the communications review.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative

My Lords, should we not remember that last July we were only days away from News Corp's bid for BSkyB being waved through? Against that background, would my noble friend not agree that our aim should be to have safeguards that prevent any one organisation owning a disproportionate share of the British media and that final decisions on media mergers and takeovers should be taken independently, not by Ministers?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

My noble friend makes very valid points on this. On his second point, the Secretary of State has indeed questioned whether it is appropriate for politicians to have the final say on plurality issues. In competition cases, Ministers are removed from the decision-making process, and that would also be applied to media plurality. We will be seeking views on that in the Green Paper. On his other point, these topics will be discussed in great depth by the communications Green Paper and by Leveson.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour

My Lords, given that each day sees the catalogue of News International's misdeeds spreading more widely, and given the dominance of the parent company throughout the UK media, should the Government not now be taking urgent action to strengthen Ofcom's powers to intervene where it has doubts about whether UK broadcasting licence holders are fit and proper persons? It is a matter of urgency now.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

I hear what the noble Baroness says. There is already a requirement on Ofcom to ensure that any person holding a broadcasting licence is and remains a fit and proper person. That is an ongoing requirement. It is not limited to merger situations. Ofcom is in contact with the relevant authorities and has asked to be kept informed of anything that may assist it in assessing whether BSkyB is and remains fit and proper to continue to hold its broadcast licences. Clearly, Ofcom cannot and should not act while allegations are unsubstantiated. If it found evidence that persons were unfit to hold a licence, it could act ahead of the conclusion of a criminal investigation.

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench

My Lords, do the Government have plans for what they might do in the event that Mr James Murdoch or, indeed, News International, decides to dispose of further UK newspaper titles? Would they be content should the new ownership be, for example, Chinese or Qatari adding to our wealth of overseas newspaper owners who do not pay taxes in this country but lead the debate on taxation?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

The noble Baroness raises a very important matter. Of course, there are competing views on this issue, which will be discussed in great depth. I apologise if that is my answer to a number of questions today. We have ongoing investigations and we really cannot pre-empt the decisions on those, but that question will undoubtedly be addressed in much greater detail.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

I agree very strongly with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Does the noble Baroness agree that there would actually be more media diversity now if, instead of closing down the News of the World, News International had taken responsibility and those responsible for the actions there had either resigned or been sacked?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

That might indeed have been the case but we are where we are. The News of the World has closed and of course we now have the new Sun on Sunday, which is a sort of replacement for it. Yes, those actions might have resulted in a different outcome; we cannot know.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that another important and necessary element of media plurality is the types of journalism practised, and that continued investment in investigative and foreign journalism, as practised by my much mourned friend Marie Colvin, is absolutely essential, and that the BBC, recipient of the licence fee, has a major part to play in this area?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

Yes, indeed, and I join my noble friend in paying tribute to reporters, journalists and photographers who put themselves in dangerous and difficult situations in order to relay important news stories to the outside world. It is always a matter of very deep regret when any of them pays the ultimate price. That is an aspect of the media that deserves our admiration and gratitude, and indeed the role of investigative journalism continues to be of vital importance.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that a useful background paper to this discussion is the document produced by the House of Lords Communications Committee some years ago, The Ownership of the News, under the chairmanship of no less a personage than my noble friend Lord Fowler?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

How could I not agree with my noble friend? Yes, indeed, and of course the Communications Committee continues to produce very well-respected and in-depth reports for your Lordships' consideration.

Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Crossbench

My Lords, surely the battle is now on for control of access to the digital media. Ofcom took three years to review pay TV, which is dominated by BSkyB. Does the Minister feel that the media regulatory framework is nimble enough to respond to a fast-changing media marketplace?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

The noble Viscount makes a very valid point and we are hoping that it will be nimbler, with the reviews that are under way at the moment. We are not intending to delay any recommendations that come out of the Leveson inquiry, or any recommendations from Ofcom. As the noble Viscount rightly says, it is a very fast-moving world.

Photo of Lord Peston Lord Peston Labour

My Lords, will the forthcoming Green Paper take into account the owners of the media that we are talking about, who seem to be largely people who neither live in this country nor pay taxes in this country? In addition, having become totally addicted to the Leveson inquiry myself, does the Minister agree that the biggest danger to freedom of the press in this country is the people who are appointed at senior levels in our newspapers, who seem to have no idea of the difference between truth and falsity?

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat

The noble Lord's initial point is similar to the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, about overseas ownership of our media. All I can say is that the Government take these matters very seriously. We are looking very closely at all the practices of the media and we are not intending to let these matters just drift on.