Sky and 21st Century Fox: Proposed Merger - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:50 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 12:50 pm, 16th March 2017

I am obliged to noble Lords for their observations on this matter. I will begin with a number of points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson; first, the question of commitment to broadcasting standards. When one is looking at broadcasting standards, one can have regard to broadcasting by way of television and radio within the statutory context but of course when actually applying a test of commitment, one is looking much more broadly at the behaviour of a particular party. That would include their behaviour in the context of news media, newspapers and other related conduct. This is not a narrowly defined issue. Commitment to broadcasting standards will embrace the conduct of a party. A party includes corporate parties and their relevant behaviour but also of course the behaviour of a controlling shareholder of a corporate party, or even a shareholder with less than a majority interest but a material controlling interest in a corporate entity. I seek to reassure the noble Lord that the question of commitment to broadcasting standards is approached on what, I suggest, is a broad basis.

With regard to plurality and the publication of reports, I understand that the last report was published in December 2010. We will publish reports arising out of this intervention, albeit I understand that they may have to be redacted to some extent on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

On the question of a fit and proper person being undefined, clearly there is a crossover between “fit and proper” and the question of the commitment to broadcasting standards. As I understand it, that is why Ofcom has expressed confidence in being able to respond to the Secretary of State by reference to not only commitment but the fit and proper test that applies under the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996.

With regard to Leveson part 2 there is little I can say, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, anticipated, in view of the undertakings given to the court pending the final disposal of the application for judicial review—an application, I would add, which was made not by this Government but against them. As regards the powers of Ofcom under the 2002 Act, it has expressed the view that it has sufficient powers. But I note that it does not, in the context of discharging its duty with regard to fit and proper under the Broadcasting Act, have the power to compel the attendance of witnesses. Nevertheless, where it requests their attendance or the provision of documents and witnesses and documents are not provided, that has a material bearing upon its assessment of commitment to broadcasting standards. Somebody who is not prepared to answer simple questions about how they would discharge their obligations as a licensee would throw into doubt whether they have a true commitment to those standards. That may appear a little circular to the noble Lord but it is essentially an effective mechanism by which Ofcom can control this process.

Coming to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I am not going to enter into a debate about the definition of “humbling”. Nevertheless, it appears on the face of it that what occurred had hit home not only with the corporate structure—the shareholders—but with individuals who held those shares. It simply would not be appropriate for me to identify the contested points made to the Minister at this stage. The Secretary of State is going to carry out a quasi-judicial process, on the advice of Ofcom and the CMA. We have to await the outcome of that process. The noble Lord mentioned the 40-day time limit. Again, that is a statutory provision and Ofcom is confident that it can adhere to that time limit. We therefore feel that it is appropriate.

As regards guarantees with regard to meetings, I am not aware of any meetings being planned or proposed by Mr Murdoch. A quasi-judicial decision will be made by the Secretary of State and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, may accept my reassurance that there is no question of inappropriate contact from any party with the Secretary of State pending the determination of that decision. With regard to the gentleman and lady on the Clapham omnibus—as originally invented, I believe, by Lord Denning—we will have to await their response to this process. But we have confidence in Ofcom and in the CMA, and we will see in due course whether it is necessary to take this on to a phase 2 inquiry at the instance of the CMA. I am obliged to noble Lords.