UK Advertising in a Digital Age (Communications Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:29 pm on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 12:29 pm, 25th April 2019

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, and the committee for the report, which made for fascinating reading. My friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford sends his apologies for not being in his place today; he is elsewhere in the world with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and so asked me to address one or two matters. I take complete responsibility for what I say, although he said that I must talk about self-regulation.

We all love digital; at least, most of us do. We love its possibilities. I do not go anywhere without my phone, frankly: I keep looking at it and I get bombarded with adverts through it. It was not planned but, yesterday evening, as it happens, I watched a lecture from a two-day conference for theologians being held in Durham this week, entitled “Missio Dei in a digital age”. Maggi Dawn, a British theologian based at Yale University, tracked the history of the impact of digital on Christian mission. She said this about how we handle digital:

“We need to recognise both the glorious possibilities of digital and its profound brokenness”.

Her point was that although digital is wonderful, with glorious possibilities we must use to the full, we must not fail to recognise its profound brokenness because it is infected by human beings, who make all kinds of mistakes in their use of things.

In that setting, I want to pick up on three specific issues in the report. The first concerns self-regulation. I was gladdened to see the report identify the need for regulation, but I am concerned about the manner in which this regulation is recommended. As seen in the tremendous influence advertising has on children’s health and well-being, self-regulation is not a sufficient means by which to moderate online spheres. With the introduction of the Gambling Act in 2007, gambling advertising has inundated the public sphere and, more recently, social media. Most notable in the digital age is the new manner in which advertising is done: nudges, banners, social media profiles, clickbait and so on, as has already been mentioned.

A rising number of British children—at least 55,000 currently—are already problem gamblers. Some 66% of young people who gamble follow gambling companies on a social media platform. The special inquiry my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans successfully campaigned for will look at the social and economic impacts of the gambling industry. I hope that will look at these areas of concern, which many noble Lords are also concerned about. What encouragement and support will the Government give that inquiry? Although I commend the Committee of Advertising Practice’s new penalties, introduced earlier this month to combat online gambling advertising to children, the reality is that little power has been given to implement such regulation.

Similar concerns may be had about online junk food advertising. Today, over the road in Church House, the Children’s Future Food Inquiry report was launched. It highlights some of these concerns. Research published late last year found that every hour kids spend online increases the chance of them buying junk food by a fifth. There is a lack of regulation around social media advertising, from Instagram influencers promoting diuretics to TikTok recently introducing flash ads for food-ordering apps.

Paragraph 86 from the committee’s report states:

“Many advertisers and content providers flout the rule that online advertising must clearly be labelled as advertising. There is currently no standard way to label advertising, and so even those who comply with the rule are inconsistent in how they do so”.

Self-regulation guidelines are available but the little influence given to official regulators is leaving young children vulnerable. The report’s suggestion is to label advertised content with a universal, mandatory logo. I see potential for this premise for general advertising; however, I expect it would have no impact on advertising aimed at children. We should instead prioritise providing more regulatory guidance to legislators. Clearly, we will have opportunities to debate this through the online harms White Paper—but the damage is happening now, so we must act swiftly.

I pick up on the point from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about the capacity and capability of the House and Parliament’s procedures. I have a son who works entirely in the digital world. He is a sports journalist and does nothing that is not digital. He regularly reminds me: “Dad, you haven’t a clue”. He is not putting me down but being blunt when he says: “I have been raised in this digital world. I am inside it, day in and day out. You just don’t get it and your generation will struggle to”.

I move to education—as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, in his introductory speech—and particularly paragraphs 111 to 114. I commend the report on its suggested review of the Government’s unnecessary division between arts and STEM education at an early age. Students of science should be encouraged toward creative education in the interest of a broad and rich education. Where possible, arts and sciences should be blended during schooling years to empower students to be flexible, especially given the considerable speed at which society is changing within their developing years. This is important for advertising but also for a wider range of careers. The divide between science and arts no longer serves us well.

Finally, I make some points on immigration and paragraph 217. I hope the Minister will assure us that this section of the report will be fed into our debates on the immigration White Paper, which proposes a £30,000 threshold that some have already raised major questions about. It strikes me that the digital world is another area where we want international talent, and we must create a new immigration policy that works to attract people on the basis of their skills, expertise and ability rather than an arbitrary income threshold.

I commend this report, that which has followed it and all the work done. I trust that my contribution adds to our debate.