Media Ownership (Radio and Cross-media) Order 2011 — Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 9th June 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 2:15 pm, 9th June 2011

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very helpful introduction to the order. We have debated media plurality before in the context of the national media, and she will know that it is an issue about which many noble Lords across your Lordships House have voiced concerns. In many ways, the fundamental issues remain the same: in a vibrant democracy, it is not in our interests to allow a monopoly of news and opinion to dominate media outlets. Consumers need a guarantee of choice and diversity.

That is why Ofcom, quite rightly, has been cautious in its advice on this matter when it has been sought by Ministers. I have read the advice issued by it on local media rules both in 2009 and 2010. It appears that it is only with some reluctance that it is recommending a further step towards the liberalisation of the remaining rules of local ownership. We understand that reluctance because, whatever the immediate circumstances might be that force us to go along with a more laissez-faire approach, it remains the case that once the rules of ownership are relaxed it is difficult to backtrack should an unhealthy monopoly develop. We have to be satisfied that the Secretary of State remains committed to the fundamental principles of plurality, is alive to any threats and is prepared to intervene under their remaining powers if necessary.

However, we are also sensitive to the difficult commercial environment currently challenging local media. I say to my noble friend Lord Prescott that, on this issue, we differentiate between trends at local and national level, because it is true that local advertising revenues are down and many local newspapers are struggling to survive. As we have heard, those that do survive are cutting back on quality and local reportage. Meanwhile, the pressure of competition from multimedia outlets across a wide spectrum of platforms is damaging the economic viability of local radio. Those services still have a valuable customer base, but are in danger of becoming commercially untenable. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and my noble friend Lord Gordon both made powerful cases for strengthening the role of the regional press and local radio in delivering diversity in local media output. We therefore recognise that if the Government were to maintain too strong a grip on the issues of local plurality, it might be at the expense of the very services we are seeking to protect. So, along with our undeniable caution, there is a case for some pragmatism.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, reminded us and as Ofcom pointed out, we are protected from a complete monopoly at a local level by the continuing strength of BBC local radio. But, as we know, the BBC is reviewing the scope of its output in many areas in response to the licence fee cut. Can the Minister update the House on any discussions held between her department and the BBC about its continuing commitment to and resourcing of local radio?

The Government have also created great publicity around their plans for local television. While we are not yet convinced of the commercial viability of these proposals, we nevertheless acknowledge that if they were to be realised, local TV could provide new players in the market locally and thereby increase the diversity of media outlets. However, this would be the case only if the plurality rules were applied to ensure that one proprietor could not own local TV, local radio and local newspapers in the area. In other words, what would stop one person controlling all the commercial radio and TV output in, for example, Manchester? Can the Minister guarantee to the House that, should the order be agreed, the liberalisation of the rules would not be extended to local TV? It would be helpful if she could update us on progress in this regard.

If we approve the order today the last backstop preventing local media monopoly is the Secretary of State and his residual powers to apply the public interest test. So far his track record in this regard is not good. His handling of the debacle of Murdoch's proposed takeover of BSkyB, which he has continued to support against a barrage of criticism from the public, politicians and media competitors, shows a callous failure to defend the principles of media plurality. My noble friend Lord Prescott has, quite rightly, again raised concerns about the credibility of the Murdoch empire in going forward and seizing further control of national media.

What reassurance can the Minister give the House today that the Secretary of State understands the strong demand for diverse media outlets in this country as part of a vibrant democracy and that he is prepared to actively intervene to prevent media barons' creating monopolies at a local level? There is a crisis of confidence in his role and we still need convincing that he remains ready to stand up for these principles. On this issue I share the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that a robust restatement of the role and status of public interest would be helpful.

There remains a residual protection against the development of unfair monopolies in that the Government give a commitment in the Explanatory Memorandum to reviewing the new measures a year after they come into effect. Can the Minister give some clarification as to the nature of that review and how it will be reported back to Parliament?

I hope, with suitable reassurances on these points, we will be able to support the order today.