Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 9:00 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, my name is also attached to these amendments, and I support the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. They add the necessary extra scrutiny needed for media mergers and ensure that Ofcom’s fit and proper test is effectively applied.

These amendments specify further grounds for the Secretary of State to refer media mergers to Ofcom. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, mentioned, the existing plurality safeguards are no longer adequate. They do not deal with market dominance and they are not sufficient for protecting editorial independence of media outlets. It is vital for the media environment that no company possesses disproportionate power to influence public opinion or the political and policy-making process. Plurality safeguards are an essential part of protecting the public and decision-makers from media organisations which are allowed to expand without proper scrutiny.

Then there is the matter of Ofcom’s fit and proper test. As many noble Lords will know, Ofcom must supply a test of fitness and propriety to owners of broadcast licences. At the moment, this test is not spelled out. What we propose would add definition to the test, using the recommendations of Leveson 2. Taking the current Sky-Fox bid as an example, I believe that this would ensure that the present chief executive of 21st Century Fox, James Murdoch, would undergo proper scrutiny if he were to retain a senior position at Sky.

I echo the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in one of the letters to which he referred. How we deal with the concentration of power decides the kind of country we are. I, too, understood that that is what Theresa May said when she became Prime Minister. Now it is for her Government to follow the logic, evidence and facts, and accept these amendments. They do not bind the Government; they simply strengthen the merger and plurality regime already in place. They put appropriate and proportionate power in the hands of an independent regulator, Ofcom, in order to protect the interests of citizens and consumers.

To quote my friend, Sir Vince Cable:

“The public interest centres on plurality and fitness”.

These are beneficial proposals which have been carefully agreed through cross-party consideration. I hope that the Minister will recognise this and respond positively.