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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 9:15 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate. It is good to have this debate.

This group of amendments seeks to make extensive changes to the broadcast media public interest considerations that may be relied upon to intervene in certain media merger situations and the fit and proper test that Ofcom has a duty to apply to all those who hold a broadcasting licence in the UK.

Before I get into the detail, the debate has included views from across the House about the parties to the Fox/Sky merger. There is a proposed merger currently in train, which it is very likely the Secretary of State will need to consider under her existing powers. As the Secretary of State noted in her written statement of 10 January, any decision will be a quasi-judicial one. It is important that she is able to act independently and that the process is scrupulously fair and impartial. As a result, neither I nor any Minister can comment on the merits of this specific case. I will have to restrict my comments to the substance of the amendments themselves.

I have noted carefully the views of noble Lords, and of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in particular. I have a transcript here of some of the debate of the then Communications Bill, in 2003. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, remembered the key issue about citizen and consumer. Indeed, Lord Puttnam and I met outside this Chamber to try to come to terms with our approach to this issue—I was part of her Majesty’s Opposition in those days. A lot was achieved. Of course, it was a government amendment on Third Reading which created the plurality and public interest test. It was my noble friend Lord Lansley, who is unfortunately unable to be in his place tonight, who sat on the draft legislative committee on that Bill, and who retains that interest.

Drawing all the contributions together brings us to a single question: do the Government believe they have the necessary powers to allow them to deal with complex media mergers and a concentration of ownership that would be damaging to media plurality?

In our view, the tests introduced in 2003 are wide-ranging and provide the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is responsible for media mergers, with a wide discretion to intervene. For example, in cases where there are concerns about media plurality, or where a bidder does not have a genuine commitment to the UK’s well-established rules on content standards and cross-promotion, which are overseen by Ofcom, the Secretary of State can consider those concerns as part of her deliberations as to whether to intervene in the proposed merger.

Turning to the amendments themselves, given the discretion to intervene based on the existing media public interest considerations, we do not believe it is necessary to add the additional requirements set out in Amendment 229ZA and would argue that these are matters that can already be considered under the existing tests. In addition, the matters set out are considered by Ofcom on an ongoing basis in its regulatory role.

There are three existing broadcast media public interest considerations that the Secretary of State can take into account in deciding whether or not to intervene in a merger. The first is the need for a sufficient plurality of persons with control of media enterprises—I stress, plurality of persons. The second is the need for a wide range of broadcasting which is both high quality and appeals to a wide variety of interests. In other words, the focus must be on content and plurality of content. The third is the need for persons carrying on media enterprises to have a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards. Together, these powers give the Secretary of State discretion to consider a wide range of matters in deciding whether the specified public interests may be relevant, and whether or not to intervene in a particular merger.

Amendment 229ZA, which inserts new Section 58(2D) into the Enterprise Act, would allow the Secretary of State to intervene in a media merger based on the need for those holding broadcasting licences to be a fit and proper person, as noble Lords have said today. The issue of who is a fit and proper person to hold a broadcasting licence is a regulatory matter for Ofcom. Ofcom is under an ongoing duty to remain satisfied that those holding broadcasting licences are fit and proper to do so, under Section 3 of the Broadcast Act 1990 and Section 3 of the Broadcast Act 1996. Ofcom’s assessment of these matters will consider the conduct of those who have material influence or control over broadcast licensees and will consider a wide range of factors in assessing who is fit and proper, including the matters set out in the amendment.

The amendment also proposes a new Section 58(2E), which is aimed at allowing intervention on the basis that the governance of broadcast media enterprises providing news needs to include sufficient safeguards for editorial freedom in the provision of full and accurate news services. I entirely accept—and the Government entirely agree with noble Lords on this—that the issue of governance is crucial, although we discussed in earlier debates today that the issue of accurate news is becoming a very difficult one and will exercise all our minds in the coming months. It is a long-established condition of broadcast licences in the UK that news is reported with due accuracy and impartiality, as set out in Ofcom’s broadcasting code. Ofcom, as the regulator, governs compliance with this requirement of the code.

The matters set out in the amendment at proposed new subsection 58(2F) would be dealt with by licence conditions and Ofcom’s broadcasting code, including provisions on fair and effective competition and the cross-promotion code, as well as matters that would be considered as part of the fit and proper person test.