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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:44 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 6:44 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, with his experience of these matters. My background is in journalism. I worked for The Times in the 1960s, and in the dozen years from 1990 to last year, I was chairman of two regional newspaper companies. I am also a lifetime member of the National Union of Journalists—although the union did at one stage say that, although it valued my membership, it wished that I would take some notice of its policies!

I shall confine my comments at this stage to the news organisations and how Britain can strengthen its position in this area. I shall approach the subject from the ground upwards rather than from Whitehall downwards.

Emergencies, conflicts and wars bring out the best in British journalism. The war in Iraq is no exception. I pay tribute to Terry Lloyd and to the ITN crew. They were obviously very brave men. It is worth making the additional point that, were it not for the efforts of war reporters, the public could simply be manipulated by the propagandists. Objective and skilled reporting is essential for public understanding of what is happening on the ground and is an indispensable foundation for democratic debate. It also throws a light on what we are discussing today; namely, the source of news for the public.

I remember reporting on the Middle East war in 1967. It was not always easy to discover what was happening, particularly if you were reporting from the side which was obviously going down to defeat. One image that stays in my mind from the time I was in Beirut is of an American correspondent, out in the open, a transistor to his ear, listening to the BBC World Service. Coming forward to 2003, a Times reporter waiting with the US Marines to go over the border commented:

"Still wearing flak jackets, helmets and gas-mask holsters, we listened to the BBC World Service and waited for the war to begin".

It makes one point about our discussion. We in this country are capable—a point made on the regional side of the debate—of providing a service which is recognised as authoritative, objective and, above all, professional. In the true sense of the word, it is world-class.

The media world has changed radically in the past 30 years. Methods of communication have been transformed. The old cable office is something of a distant memory and powerful news companies such as Sky and CNN have emerged. Nevertheless, both in radio or television, the BBC remains a major force which, if we have the slightest sense, we shall want to preserve and develop. It provides news in depth, and it provides balanced news. By any measure, it is among world leaders. Its reporters—I stress that I am talking about its reporters—are among the best in the world.

Yet, for some reason, there is an antipathy to the BBC which turns confirmed deregulators into strong interventionists when it comes to looking at the affairs of the corporation. So far as concerns this Bill, I shall not support measures that weaken the BBC.

Nor do I think it enough to say that the Bill is deregulatory, and assume that that simply finishes all argument. For one thing, as with newspapers, it is anything but clear that it does sweep away regulations. For another, it would appear that one undoubted act of deregulation is likely to leave the rest of the world looking on in wonder at this magnificent act of generosity on our part which it has not the slightest inclination to reciprocate.

We should do much better to look at the Bill and ask what is in the best interests of UK plc, and to do so in an objective and non-political way. I say that because, whenever politics and issues of media control come together, independent judges should look exceptionally hard at the position. Currying favour with powerful media owners is not exactly unknown in our political system. I make that point quite irrespective of political party. The role of this House must be to look behind some of these proposals, particularly because—and I deplore the fact—so much of the Bill has been left without scrutiny in another place.

At this stage, I have four areas of concern. The first is the ownership of ITN. I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in a spirited speech. ITN was at one stage a worthy rival to the BBC. It is, frankly, no fault of the journalists that their position has weakened in the past few years. To move the news about as it has been defies all common sense.

There is no guaranteed solution, but time has moved on, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said. The most hopeful way forward would be for ITV to take ownership; there should be one ITV company, made up of Carlton and Granada together, with one news company. That would be in the best British interests.

That brings me to my second point—the ownership of Channel 3. The proposal in the Bill that a United States company should be able to take over here while we are barred there is frankly extraordinary. I am not entirely reassured by the hope expressed by Ministers that, in future, the United States will relent. I cannot believe that these tactics of negotiation were taught at any sensible business school in any country, nor that any American company that might benefit would contemplate these tactics for one moment. I give notice that I shall certainly not support that provision.

Thirdly, like others I have doubts about the policy proposed for Channel 5. It is certainly deregulatory—one cannot complain on that score—but it is a form of deregulation that benefits only one company. As the other independent television companies point out, News Corp could take full control of Channel 5, with the effect that it is the single owner of the largest newspaper group in the UK, the UK's dominant digital platform, our most-watched 24-hour news channel and our lightest regulated national commercial terrestrial channel. I would need some persuasion that that was in the interests of the United Kingdom.

Fourthly, I am not convinced that the Bill has done anything to improve the position of newspapers—especially the position of regional and local newspapers. That point was touched on by my noble friend Lord Wakeham. The Newspaper Society believes that the Bill will give the Secretary of State discretion to refer a substantial majority of newspaper acquisitions to the Competition Commission, however small. Note—however small.

There is a 220-page report from the Competition Commission from May 2002. It is not an examination of the transfer of one national group taking over another but the transfer of eight free newspapers, distributed under titles ranging from the Northampton Herald and Post to the Derby Trader. The one point not in contest was that the most that could be said financially was that they broke even. Indeed, by the time of the reference, they were clearly in loss. Nevertheless, after an elaborate investigation, the Competition Commission found against and the merger was scotched. I am doubtful whether that was in the interests of the regional press.

The regional press should be taken seriously, and should not be underestimated. Like regional radio, it remains trusted by the public and financially sound when able to make its own decisions.

I unreservedly applaud one procedure used to examine the Bill—the pre-legislative scrutiny—and I congratulate the chairman and all members of the committee. Some of the issues have been teased out precisely because of that examination. However, it has often seemed to me that what is needed with much legislation is not only pre-legislative scrutiny but post-legislative scrutiny, to see how the Government's plans have worked out in practice. In my experience, it is the lack of objective checks after the legislation has been passed that too often runs us into trouble. I suspect that such a process would benefit this legislation, whether by a special committee or a permanent Select Committee, as advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe.

I would like to be enthused by the Bill, and I support some aspects of it with no difficulty. However, on several important points, I am decidedly sceptical about it.