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Cairncross Review - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:46 pm on 12th February 2019.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 4:46 pm, 12th February 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, paints a romantic and nostalgic picture of the local press, and he is right to do so. But, in trying to solve the problems that face us in somehow helping the Burry Port Star, we must beware. The press owners have come with a begging bowl. They earlier proclaimed their resistance to any government interference, but quite ready to dip their hands into the public purse are very large and rich companies, many of which have delivered redundancy after redundancy to local papers in favour of their shareholders.

That is one of the reasons why local journalism is in the state that it is in. I also suggest that the National Union of Journalists might be added to the list of people to consult that the Minister read out. There is a serious challenge to local media. Dame Frances set it out very bleakly in her report and the Minister repeated it. There is massive technological change and that impacts on how news is received and—particularly with the under-25s—how it is digested.

I welcome some of the actions announced by the Minister to refer some of the recommendations to relevant bodies. However, the ambitions of the Government and newspaper proprietors would be more credible if they had not been so eager to bury the Leveson report and ignore its call for the establishment of a regulator set up by royal charter which could do many of the tasks called for in this report.

As I said, freedom from Government does not seem to stop the press barons from dipping into the public purse. Therefore, although I welcome the recommendations on digital and media literacy, online advertising and news quality obligations, we should be hard-nosed about how and where tax relief and innovation fund money is spent. It is not there simply to line the pockets of Newsquest, JPI Media and Reach, which are all big, profitable companies that have taken the lion’s share of the existing Local Democracy Reporting Service, which costs the BBC £8 million.

Some of the powers advocated in this report could be taken on by the Press Recognition Panel, the independent body established by Parliament under royal charter. The recommendations on how to bring the FANGs within the rule of law go wider than the issues covered by this report but its recommendations on new codes of conduct for online platforms are to be welcomed.

But what do we find in the report? As usual, it is a quick dive to try to weaken the BBC. In almost 40 years of being involved in this I have explained to various media proprietors that 90 years ago a Conservative Government had the common sense to nationalise the BBC as a public service broadcaster with a mandate that consciously distorted the market in favour of public service broadcasting. They want to have a go at the BBC online because it carries the same credibility and weight as the broadcast BBC. I hope that although the Minister has asked Ofcom to look at this, Ofcom will be very sceptical about trying to weaken one of the strongest public service journalism outlets in this country, one which should be defended.

I hope also that the Minster will use his good influence to secure a full day’s debate in this House. This is an important report; so is the one published today by the Press Recognition Panel. This is an ongoing debate and the knowledge that exists in this House would be of benefit in taking a very wide agenda forward.