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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Wakeham Lord Wakeham Conservative 4:32 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, I support the Bill, but I do so with considerable reservations—and even before the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has had a go at it. I suspect that we shall have some very lively exchanges in the latter stages of the Bill.

This is the first time that I have risen to take part in a debate on the media without having to declare an interest. As noble Lords will know, I was for seven years the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. During my time, I sought to encourage press self-regulation and press freedom—which in my view is fundamental to a free society. I did my best to see that it worked in the interests of ordinary people. Self-regulation is like any aspect of freedom: it has rough edges and it is not perfect. But it does work and it has no doubt raised standards of reporting over the years. My concern with this massively important Bill is that contained within it are all the ingredients necessary to undermine a free press, self-regulation and the quick, common-sense resolution of complaints. The damage will be, in my view, to ordinary people who at present complain to the PCC—and that is 95 per cent of the complaints that I had over those seven years. The rich, the famous and the crooks will be able to look after themselves.

There is a great deal in the Bill that I fully support. I think that it is sensible from the point of view of the public as well as of the industry for there to be one regulator for radio, television and communications. I instinctively support the deregulatory aspects of the Bill. In an age in which communications industries are developing and evolving day by day, it is quite right that we should be cutting away at the red tape that stifles innovation rather than adding to it.

I wish that I was more reassured by Ministers' statements that there is no way that Ofcom will have a significant role in press freedom or in the editorial content of newspapers. Although I am quite sure that they mean it, the problem, it seems to me, is that Ofcom will be responsible for advising on newspaper mergers. Its remit, in that case, is too wide. It is bound eventually to lead Ofcom into the territory of press regulation, which is precisely where it should not be.

First, I am concerned about the extent of Ofcom's responsibility on the issue of mergers themselves, which will hit regional and local newspapers—the lifeblood of all local communities—particularly hard. The vast majority of existing newspaper companies, large and small, seeking to make even the most modest of newspaper purchases are likely to be caught by the criteria in the Bill for the exceptional public interest test. That will give the Secretary of State substantial powers to refer the vast majority of newspaper acquisitions to the Competition Commission for scrutiny, and will also mean public consultation, with the uncertainty and problems that that brings. My fear is that that will have a profound impact among local newspaper companies, which need a substantial market share to survive and compete. That in turn will affect their economic vibrancy. The loser, over time, will of course be the local communities and ordinary readers throughout the country. The Government should look at that again. Again, I do not believe that the Government intend that that should happen, but that is what I fear in practice will happen.

Secondly, in discharging its functions relating to newspaper mergers, Ofcom will inevitably be dragged into the whole area of editorial content and the work of the PCC. For, in advising about a range of issues such as fairness, accuracy and opportunity to reply, it will of necessity need to form a view about a newspaper or magazine publisher's record in implementing the Editor's Code. That would inevitably place Ofcom as a statutory overseer of the PCC and self-regulation. That is statutory press control by the back door, something against which the Government—like the previous government of whom I was a member—have quite rightly set themselves.

Worse still, there is I think a danger that someone will try to use the courts, via the Human Rights Act—which has profound implications for public authorities such as Ofcom—to drag the print media within the scope of that Act. The courts—which have rightly fought shy of using the Act as a backdoor privacy law, and all credit to them for that—will be back in an arena in which they do not wish to be. The whole business of dispute resolution by the PCC, and the common-sense manner in which it administers the code, both to the advantage of ordinary people, will be under threat yet again. It may take some time for that threat to develop; it may happen more quickly; but unless something is done to ensure Ofcom has no role whatever in newspaper merger matters, develop it surely will, for the Bill puts the entire apparatus in place.

I have never argued that self-regulation is perfect, but I am greatly concerned that this good Bill will have consequences that I do not believe the Government want. My profound interest in this matter is—as it has been all along—to ensure that where newspapers and magazines are concerned, ordinary people who have a grievance will have some effective, non-legal and free redress. They have it at the moment. Although it is not perfect, it is far preferable to any of the alternatives. The Bill could end up by damaging self-regulation, and that must not happen. I therefore urge the Government to look again at that part of what I think is a very good Bill.