Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:14 pm on 25th March 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat 8:14 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, I commend the work of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, as did others. It has been a remarkably effective and useful prelude to this massive piece of legislation. My noble friend Lord McNally gave a bravura performance and expressed much of what I and most on these Benches would have wished to say. Although I have been a practising solicitor throughout my life, I have had close involvement with the media. For 26 years I had a slot on a BBC Radio 2 programme. I also presented "The London Programme" for London Weekend Television and a series for Anglia Television. For a decade, until last year, I was a trustee of the Scott Trust, which owns a large media group including the Observer and the Guardian. My interest could be said to be semi-informed but very intense.

The first thing that strikes me about this wonderfully complicated Bill, which at 570 pages will be a bonanza for my profession, is that only a handful of people will ever really understand it. I wonder whether yet again both Houses—the other House must have its share of the blame—have come up with a measure so complicated that, to some extent, it will be self-defeating in time, and whether we are placing on Ofcom a wholly unrealistic burden. I hear the arguments about isolating and giving power in one hand, but, as we go through the Bill, we must keep a canny eye on it to see whether it can be simplified. I wholly concur with the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for a downstream impact assessment.

I am strongly in favour of the 20:20 rule in relation to cross-media ownership and Channel 5. It would not be remotely effective to try to achieve public interest protection through powers given to Ofcom that can be used only after such a merger. Our statute book is littered with such powers and discretions, which are often unexercised or exercised capriciously or ineffectively. The threat of a distracting, expensive legal action against the regulator by big media battalions is a real deterrent to effective operation.

Chapter 2 of Part 5 of the Bill deals with newspaper mergers. I hope that I have not got the wrong end of the stick, but it seems to amend the Enterprise Act 2002, which has been in force for only less than a year. That Act retained the special provisions on newspaper mergers first introduced by the Fair Trading Act 1973. They were relatively concrete and relatively effective. When Tiny Rowland and Lonrho took over the Observer in 1981, the Secretary of State was able to impose a severe, effective network of provisions. Those provisions controlled Tiny Rowland when, in 1985, he tried to cajole the independent directors into undermining the position of the then editor. When he did not get his way, he withdrew all the advertising that came to the newspaper from his empire. Still that did not achieve the trick. Those provisions will be much weakened by the new measures.

In her opening speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, called the provisions in Clause 368 "advisory" requirements on the part of Ofcom to ensure, "accurate presentation of news", "free expression of opinion" and,

"a plurality of views in newspapers".

I suggest that that is much too insubstantial to be an effective constraint.

The other broad issue underlying my opposition to weakening the newspaper and cross-media ownership rules is the already powerful effect on our national life of the giantism that has grown out of the original ITV concept. Although I agree with everything else that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said, I must part company with him in that regard. It says it all that we are awaiting a decision on whether or not to allow the amalgamation of the only two survivors of the great ITV experiment. From the "let regional flowers bloom" concept based on independent regional television companies that are regionally staffed, independently directed and have regional studios and production, we are now in thrall to two giants. Of course, they would say that they are not giants and that only by joining can they punch their weight in world markets.

I accept that there is a conflict between that aspiration and the regionalism or localism in favour of which the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, spoke so eloquently. Perhaps we cannot have it both ways, but I would have thought that if we can build Airbus in two disparate countries, we can surely combine to achieve some of the great programming that we all want to see. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, called the contrary a risible idea.

It is certain that the centralisation of power that has, in my view and that of my party, so damaged our society in recent decades is no less a commercial than a political phenomenon. Those who want to see the BBC on a so-called level playing field ignore the massively distortive effect of modern commercialism on life in general. Unrivalled as an allocator of goods and services, the market should not be the sole determinant of the shape of British television. I blanched at the prediction made by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, that, in not many years, the sole significant provider of public interest broadcasting would be the BBC.

I suppose that that view is based on what I agree to be the reality; namely, that modern financial markets are morally and culturally indifferent to everything but money return. The very workings of the City are anti-cultural. The efforts of those markets have destroyed regional television. I think of my local TV channel, Anglia, swallowed up a few years ago by Meridian, a vehicle of the noble Lord, Lord Hollick. In spite of assurances given at the time that the level and quality of local productions would be maintained, both have in fact been decimated. Today, Norwich is a shadow of its former self.

The need to salvage and sustain what is left of regional production makes me oppose letting the ITV companies further off the hook by treating them as independents when making programmes for broadcasters outside ITV. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester who criticised the "taken together" judgment allowed to Ofcom in its oversight of the public interest test. I also share the view of Public Voice that it is laughably vague for Ofcom to be able to require Channels 3 and 5 to source merely a "suitable" proportion of programmes outside the M25.

As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, British Music Rights has effectively drawn attention to the plight of independent music makers. Capital, Chrysalis, Emap and GWR operate a central playlist for their local stations, with an overlap of approximately 90 per cent in the records that they play. That is vastly destructive of the diversity and local talent that is the seed-bed for the stars of tomorrow.

I concur wholeheartedly with what the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, said. She drew attention to the extraordinarily reductionist goals of this mammoth Bill, set out in Clause 3. We must give a less dispiriting view of what the Bill is all about, and I look forward, with your Lordships, to doing just that.