Amendment 124

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (8th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated 9:45, 23 May 2023

My Lords, much of what I would have said has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Black, so I will make my contribution brief. Elegantly dressed up as these amendments were by the noble Lord on behalf of the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNally, to whom I also say get well soon, they are in fact intended to change the way the press is currently regulated. I declare my interest as chairman of IPSO, a post I have held since January 2020. IPSO regulates 95%, by circulation, of the printed press, and that includes online versions of newspapers.

Noble Lords will remember the Leveson inquiry, following the discovery of unacceptable press practices including phone hacking. Parliament’s response was to create the Press Recognition Panel and the concept of an approved regulator. It was not state regulation, but nor was it the status quo ante. Only one regulator has sought and attained approved status: Impress. The Press Recognition Panel was chaired by David Wolfe KC, who provided a quotation to the noble Lord. Impress is funded by the estate of Max Mosley. It does not regulate any of the main national newspapers, which have either, like the Guardian, elected for self-regulation, or, like most of the others, selected IPSO as their regulator. Now, clearly it would be unattractive for me to extol the virtues of IPSO, but to its critics I recommend reading the newly published independent external review, written by Sir Bill Jeffrey, former Permanent Secretary at the MoD. I think readers would generally be reassured by the report.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act was intended as a stick—or was it a carrot—to drive newspapers into the arms of the approved regulator. Even when I had nothing to do with press regulation, I did not like that provision, which has hovered over the newspaper industry like the sword of Damocles. It has never been brought into effect, and I welcome the fact that the Government now intend to repeal Section 40 via the media Bill—although I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, that there may be a debate about the proper scope of regulation, and indeed of Section 40, when that comes before Parliament.

As I understand these amendments, regulation of the largest websites would prospectively be the subject of the Online Safety Bill’s regulatory regime. I echo comments already made that this extraordinarily significant Bill is not primarily directed at press regulation at all. It is intended by these amendments that for newspapers to qualify for the recognised news publisher status, they would have to be a member of an approved regulator. This is plainly an attempt to dismantle the current system of press regulation.

It seems something of an irony that newspapers that are regulated by IPSO or even self-regulated have accountability, however imperfect, whereas, pending the passing of the Bill, internet platforms are wholly unregulated—yet it is sought to pass off some of the regulation of newspapers to Ofcom. Is Ofcom ready, willing or even equipped to replicate the complaints system that currently obtains? I think Ofcom would have quite enough to do. Is its horizon-scanning model even appropriate for press complaints? It is very early days to increase the scope of Ofcom’s rule. The Government have promised a review of the regulatory framework in two or three years; I suppose then it might be possible to assess whether Ofcom’s role should change or be enlarged. Until then, it seems inappropriate to do so.

I suggest that the current system of press regulation should not be the subject of further statutory provision at this juncture, or indeed at all. There have been some deplorable press practices in the past, but the traditional printed press in this country, albeit a much-reduced animal with diminished circulation and advertising revenues, nevertheless has some real strengths. A free, vigorous and challenging press is part of a functioning democracy. We should be very wary of giving a Government, of whatever colour and by whatever means, greater power to control it.