Ofcom: RT News Channel - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 28th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 2:45 pm, 28th January 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the findings of Ofcom’s investigations into the RT news channel.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, investigations into RT are a matter for Ofcom as the independent communications regulator. On 20 December 2018, Ofcom announced that the RT news channel broke broadcasting rules in seven programmes. Ofcom is minded to consider a statutory sanction, and it is right that it makes decisions without government interference. On 17 January, RT announced that it will be seeking a judicial review of Ofcom’s findings. It is vital that as a society we remain vigilant regarding the spread of harmful disinformation, and Ofcom has strong powers to tackle it where it occurs in broadcast news.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, I am really grateful to the Minister for a very helpful Answer. Does he agree that it is ironic that RT takes advantage of the freedoms in this country that are not available in Russia? Will he nevertheless take some government action to stop RT, the Russian television agency, the Sputnik news agency, based in Edinburgh and London, and indeed all the social networks spreading the Kremlin’s fake news throughout this United Kingdom?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the noble Lord. I agree, although I would not want to comment specifically on RT, for the reasons I have mentioned. However, in 2017 the Prime Minister said that the Russian state has been launching,

“a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption”, which has included,

“meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag”.

Therefore, I agree with the noble Lord’s view.

Regarding disinformation generally, we are working with the DfE to include information for schoolchildren on how to make judgments about what they read on social media, and a consultation will be coming out this year. We are also launching a programme of adult internet literacy, which will be very important in enabling older members of society to understand how this new technology works. In addition, we are engaged with international partners, such as the G7, the UN and the Council of Europe, but, above all, we are introducing the online harms White Paper, part of which will deal with tackling disinformation. Generally speaking, we will look at illegal harms and the much more difficult area of harms that are legal.

Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend take into account the fact that RT and other Russian actors have produced strong propaganda against the shale gas industry and that this is having a real effect on the debate in this country?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I have said, RT is regulated by Ofcom, which is independent of government, and I know that it will do its job.

Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Crossbench

I declare an interest as a series producer for the Smithsonian Channel and CNN. A week after the ruling on RT, the personal details and photographs of journalists working in Russia for the BBC were leaked online. This action was publicly condoned by President Putin’s press office and was seen as an act—indeed, part of a pattern—of intimidation. At a time when the BBC’s Russian service had seen an annual increase of 20% in its audience, what are the Government doing to protect the BBC World Service and the Russian service within the Russian Federation?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The BBC’s charter was renewed for 10 years. Its job is to provide impartial news, and Ofcom regulates those services. It has been given the financial backing to do that—£3.8 million of licence-payers’ money. I believe that an extra £219 million has been provided over the next four years to increase the number of Russian language programmes that the BBC World Service can produce.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords)

It is clear that Ofcom is doing a thorough and effective job on this very difficult case. We hope it will move forward in an appropriate way. Does this case not raise the wider question of whether the holder of the broadcast licence here is a fit and proper person to carry out the duties for which it is responsible? The issue came up recently during the Sky takeover; there was common ground in the House that the existing rules, both through statute and through the precedents set in previous cases, mean that this is not an effective test. Are the Government going to do anything about that?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I do not want to talk specifically about RT for the reasons I mentioned. Ofcom has sanctions which can include fines, suspension or revocation of a licence if Ofcom deems that suitable.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Ofcom licenses many hundreds of broadcasters in London? This is a good example of what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, often refers to as Britain’s soft power. Is it not very important that we leave Ofcom to the job it was given with the powers it was given? The idea that some kind of political or government pressure was involved does not set a good precedent with regard to closing radio or television stations. We should let RT make its case to Ofcom, let Ofcom use its powers and then see what happens.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I completely agree with the noble Lord. That is why I said in my initial Answer that it is right for Ofcom to make decisions without government interference.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister is right that Ofcom is not responsible to the Government. but am I right in saying that it is responsible to Parliament?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am not sure; I do not know whether it is responsible in a statutory sense but of course ultimately Parliament can decide what it wants. The main point is that, in a democratic society such as ours, the regulator of the news and of broadcasters should not be linked to government, especially the Executive. That is the situation we have now and I believe that it is working well.