Social Media: News - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 11th January 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 4:55 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, the summing up of a debate such as this is always difficult and today it is almost impossible. I will not mention all the contributions—as I say, that would be impossible. I will mention three. I am delighted to be following the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. As she knows, I am one of her groupies in that I have looked to her for advice on this area since I was a Minister and she was part of an advisory group, which I confess I referred to in my private office as “Geeks Anonymous”. I am also thankful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. I said after her amendment that hers was a parliamentary triumph and a game-changer. I believe that the Kidron amendment will be referred to time and again in the years to come as having changed the weather in how we approach this. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has been my mentor and friend on these issues for 20 years and I am grateful that he has intervened again today. As for the rest of you, all I can possibly do is amend a saying beloved of our American friends: there has not been so much wisdom concentrated in one place since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

My own mentor, Jim Callaghan, used to like to say, “A lie can be halfway around the world before truth has got its boots on”. Jim used to say that in the 1970s: now, of course, it is in nanoseconds, or whatever is the flash of light in terms of information. How our societies come to terms with what has been termed the fourth industrial revolution, the data revolution or whatever, will be one of the great challenges. Matthew Parris, who entered the Commons in the same 1979 intake as I did, wrote in the Times on 30 December:

“The internet is a jungle that can’t be tamed. It would be impossible to censor social media so we might as well embrace fake news and learn to ignore the insults”.

I admire Matthew Parris, both in his political career and as a journalist, but it is a thought with which I profoundly disagree. It is the task of this generation to bring the new technologies within the rule of law and of democratic accountability. Of course, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, that we need to get the balance right and to make a proper judgment about benefits and real harm, but I also agree with her that saying no politely is not enough of a response for these social media giants.

I think that in many ways we are in the same position as politicians who had to face the massive changes of the industrial revolution, and in the United States the massive growth of corporations. The political systems showed the ability to tackle the big trusts, the monopolies and the health and safety, hours of work and all the rest. We must not preach a feeling of doom about this: they are not beyond our control, but when I say control, it is that light touch. When I was the Minister working on the general directive which is at the core of the Bill that was debated in the House yesterday, the British position was constantly to have light-touch regulation. We were mostly opposed by countries which only but recently had experience of a Stasi, or the power of an intrusive state, so I understand the balances and the discussions.

In many ways, some of the agonising in this debate today is always there in a liberal democracy—small “l”, small “d”. In liberal democracies, we agonise about what the limits of free speech are, and if we put limits on it, we worry about why we do so. In that respect, as I hinted in the debate yesterday, I am closer to the noble Lord, Lord Black, than might be imagined. I really am worried that these big companies can, as it were, asset-strip the communications industry in a way that undermines the ecology of all communication. I cannot remember which of the White Papers it was from some time during the 1980s or 1990s that talked about diversity, quality and choice as the aim of policy, as far as communications in its widest sense goes. I still believe that is important and that to have that diversity, quality and choice, we must make sure that our print media are not dramatically undermined. I took to heart what the news media associations said on how these new technology companies are undermining and weakening them.

I have also had the briefing, as most of those taking part probably have, from ITV, Channel 4 and Sky about the impact on them. Of particular interest, and an old concern of mine, is the BBC. If our communications ecology is under threat from these companies, it is more important than ever that we continue to support the BBC and the other public service broadcasters in the job that they do. We need to be careful that they are not undermined by what these tech companies are doing. This is not only in the provision of news but in the undermining of these companies in providing an underpinning of our cultural values, in the programmes they commission and the work they do. Ofcom has to take on its new responsibilities by not only regulating or oversighting the BBC but by defending it against unfair attacks. In this new age, a BBC dedicated to inform, educate and reform is more needed than ever.

I agree entirely with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about education. Again, it is good that we have had this overlap between the Data Protection Bill, which we debated yesterday, and this debate. We are talking about getting ourselves ready for this transformation. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that it is as big a change as the invention of the printing press. It is a complete challenge to almost every sector of our society and if our democratic institutions are to be able to survive the assault that this era of rapid change brings to us, we will have to be ready. I will cite again that when the Education Act 1870 was passed, it was said that they had to educate their masters. Well, now we have to educate our population—not just our children but us all.

We have also got to educate ourselves. I was invited to a round table as an expert on the digital economy. I said that I am not an expert but a politician trying to learn about what this involves for our society. I strongly support the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, of an ad hoc committee of this House. I know that is not a ministerial responsibility. This debate is not an end in itself. It is part of a process of getting ourselves prepared and ready for some of the challenges that new technologies are going to bring to Parliament and to our society.