Media Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 4:23 pm on 28 February 2024.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay:

Moved by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to move the Second Reading of this Bill. I do so at a time when the UK’s media landscape faces enormous technological change, but in the face of which I am proud to say it is thriving. British-made programmes are watched and enjoyed by audiences at home and across the globe. Our public service broadcasters not only produce fantastic shows which keep audiences glued to their screens but inform and educate them, and project British values and the best of British creativity around the world.

Similarly, our radio environment is exceptionally rich and diverse—there is a radio station for everyone. UK radio stations provide an incredible service, again not just entertaining their listeners but disseminating local news and information throughout the country. That is something that we want to value and protect.

We should also celebrate the thousands of excellent and exciting job opportunities that the sector creates across the United Kingdom, and the billions of pounds that it adds to the economy. This is a pro-growth Bill. It will not only enable people to continue to watch and listen to the content that they love but help to grow our world-leading creative industries and maintain their status as world leaders.

It has been more than 20 years since the last major piece of broadcasting legislation reached the statute book. The world has changed significantly since then, as have the ways in which we consume media. The growth of the streaming giants, smart televisions and online radio has completely changed consumers’ demand and expectations. Our world-renowned media industry has embraced the challenge, adapting rapidly not just to survive but to thrive.

His Majesty’s Government have heard the passionate support for the Bill from the industry and from Members of both Houses of Parliament. I am delighted that it is now before your Lordships’ House, and I look forward to working with noble Lords from across the House to ensure that it delivers for our brilliant media sector and for viewers and listeners.

The Government are grateful to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in another place for its thorough examination of the Bill during pre-legislative scrutiny last year. We were pleased to accept the majority of the recommendations set out in the committee’s two reports; there is no doubt that those have improved the Bill before us. I also thank the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House—under the expert chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston and, before her, of my noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg—for the work that it has carried out on the many areas relating to the Bill. Its reports on public service broadcasting and on the future of journalism and, most recently, its inquiry into the future of news have helped to shape the Bill and the Government’s wider work in this area.

The Bill has also benefited from extensive engagement with industry and with Members of both Houses. We have heard from public service broadcasters, commercial broadcasters, the radio and news media, radio and television selection services, on-demand streaming platforms and Ofcom throughout the drafting of the Bill, in its pre-legislative scrutiny and during its passage through another place. Together, that has helped to produce a Bill that incorporates their views and addresses their challenges, and one which we hope will work for everyone. We are very grateful for the time and effort that everyone has gone to while working with us on the Bill.

I thank Ofcom for the work that it has undertaken to get the Bill to this stage. Its research in this area and its close work in supporting the drafting of the Bill have been invaluable. It has already made clear its plans for implementation in the materials that it published earlier this week. The Government look forward to continuing to work with Ofcom on the remaining stages of the Bill and on the implementation of its provisions.

I turn to what the legislation does. The Bill supports our public service broadcasters to ensure that they are able to provide high-quality content to United Kingdom audiences for years to come. As it stands, our public service broadcasters are governed by laws written more than two decades ago. Part 1 of the Bill seeks to modernise the framework for public service television. This will ensure that our public service broadcasters are encouraged to focus on what makes them distinctive, while having the flexibility to serve audiences across the UK with high-quality programmes on a wider range of services.

Many noble Lords, like countless people beyond your Lordships’ House, are passionate sports fans. We want to make sure that fans are able to continue to watch the biggest sporting events that this country has to offer. That is why we are modernising the listed events regime to protect viewers’ access to the major sporting events that define our nation. We are extending the protections that the regime offers for live listed events coverage in line with where audiences choose to watch it. TV-like services providing live content to audiences in the UK via the internet will now need to comply with our rules. We are also making qualification a public service broadcaster benefit, recognising the role that these broadcasters play in delivering national sporting moments, and providing certainty in the future.

Part 2 of the Bill deals with prominence. We know that audiences value public service content. We want to make sure that it is always available and easily accessible for them. As is the case in linear broadcasting, the Bill ensures that public service content is made available and easy to find on modern platforms such as smart televisions, set-top boxes and streaming sticks. Not only will that improve the audience experience but it is a vital reform for the sustainability of our public service broadcasters.

Part 3 contains measures specifically designed to support the sustainability of Channel 4. The Government are clear in our intent to support Channel 4 in continuing to make ground-breaking, unique and distinctively British content for years to come. Some of the means to do that can be found in the Bill, such as the measures to strengthen the broadcaster’s governance arrangements and allowing it to make more of its own programmes. Others can be found in the memorandum of understanding undertaken between the Government and Channel 4 when the Bill was introduced in another place on 8 November last year.

The Government have also worked closely with Sianel Pedwar CymruS4C—to make sure that it has the tools it needs to continue to provide Welsh language content. I am pleased to say that the Bill will implement in statute recommendations from Euryn Ogwen Williams’s 2018 independent review into the future of the broadcaster. This includes allowing S4C to broaden its reach and offer its contents on new platforms across the United Kingdom and beyond, and updating its public service remit to include digital and online services. S4C will be able more easily to adapt to market change, maximising the benefits to its audiences, and to continue to deliver high-quality content.

The ways in which we watch television have changed a great deal in recent decades. Watching several episodes of “Coronation Street” back to back was once possible only during an omnibus on Sunday afternoons; now people can do it with a few clicks on ITVX, any day of the week and any time they choose. The growth of video on demand services has been extraordinary, but we know that audiences would like to see these services held to the same standards that are required of normal television services. That is why we are introducing a new video on demand code, drafted by Ofcom, by which the streaming giants will be required to abide. Noble Lords will, I know, be pleased to hear that this code will better protect children and uphold the standards that we see on our linear services. In addition, Ofcom will have a new duty to review and ensure that all on-demand services’ audience protection measures are effective and fit for purpose. We are also making sure that streamers provide greater access to their programmes by increasing the amount of subtitled, audio-described and signed content available on their services.

Turning to the radio industry, I am sure that noble Lords will welcome the provisions for radio in Part 5 of the Bill. These seek to boost the growth of our fantastic radio industry by reducing regulatory burdens and costs on commercial radio stations, and supporting investment by broadcasters in content and the long-term sustainability of the sector, while also strengthening protections for the provision of local news and information. As with television, we have seen a shift in how people enjoy the radio. While traditional broadcast methods remain popular, recent years have seen rapid growth in listening via devices such as smart speakers, too. The Government want to encourage innovation in the growth of new technology, but we also recognise the need for protections for radio and the huge public value that it provides, as noble Lords have often raised in our exchanges in this House. Again, we are grateful to the radio industry and to technology companies for their engagement on these measures.

Finally, in Part 7, and fulfilling a manifesto commitment, the Bill will remove a threat to the freedom of the press by repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. That section has not been commenced; if it were, it could force publishers to pay the legal costs of people who sue them, even if they win. Members of your Lordships’ House, along with Members of another place, have taken a strong interest in the practices and culture of our free press over recent years. There now exists a strengthened, independent self-regulatory system for the press. But, as the manifesto on which the Government were elected makes clear, we will make sure that the heavy-handed measures of Section 40 are not able to stifle the independence or threaten the sustainability of the British press.

I am mindful that my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean has tabled a regret amendment to the Second Reading. I will listen to his reasons for doing so when he rises shortly. Let me pre-empt his comments, if I may, by assuring him that the Government take this issue seriously.

Under the Enterprise Act 2002, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene in media mergers on certain public interest grounds, including where there are concerns about media freedom and freedom of expression. The Government also already have tough powers, including through the National Security and Investment Act 2021, to address foreign interference and to scrutinise—and, if necessary, intervene in— acquisitions on grounds of national security. The Bill before us has only one clause pertaining to the press: the repeal of Section 40, which I have just mentioned. It is concerned with the removal of burdensome obligations on news media outlets and not press ownership, which is beyond the scope of the Bill. As my noble friend will be aware, there are ongoing discussions and amendments to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill on this issue.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their involvement in and support for the Bill as it has made its way to your Lordships’ House. I look forward to the debates ahead and the scrutiny that we will give it, and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:34, 28 February 2024

My Lords, I will start with a reference to the amendment to the Motion laid by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I fully understand the noble Lord’s frustrations. Concerns and questions over this issue have been raised multiple times in both Houses. I have asked previously whether the Government have any plans to review rules on media ownership and to date have received no answer. We recognise the Government’s response that they are awaiting the conclusion of investigations by the CMA and Ofcom. However, I wonder whether the Minister can offer an opportunity, perhaps outside of this debate, for noble Lords to raise issues and hear from the Minister or Secretary of State on this. That said, we have waited 20 years for the Media Bill in front of us. I will focus my remarks on the substance of the Bill which has finally reached us, but I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, later in the debate.

The Minister has fairly set out the rationale behind the Government’s Media Bill but, of course, he has not given us the full story behind its arrival here in the Lords. We were promised this particular piece of legislation a long time ago. Finally, two years ago in the 2022 Queen’s Speech, details were provided of a media Bill, although this turned out to be a draft Bill published in March 2023. Some commentators have said that this has been in the offing for nearly 10 years. I do not intend to try to embarrass the Minister; the delay is embarrassment enough.

We would certainly have had a Bill earlier in this Parliament if it had not been the subject of internal wrangling about the future of Channel 4. However, we are pleased that the Government saw sense and dropped their desire—or the desire of the former Secretary of State—to privatise it. I suspect that if they had pursued that course, they would have upset the whole public sector broadcaster eco-structure. I suspect that it would have also made the Minister’s job today a whole lot harder.

It was way back in 2003 under the previous Labour Government when the legislative framework for public service broadcasting was renewed. So much has changed, as the Minister said, since the Communications Act 2003. As the Government have rightly asserted, much has changed in the media landscape. We now have on-screen entertainment divided into linear broadcasting and on-demand streaming services. Broadcast radio has also changed, with the public being able to choose how they access on-air services. The Government have argued that these changes make it essential that public service broadcasting, on-demand programme services and commercial radio have a new regulatory framework. We agree wholeheartedly with that. For that reason, we support the Bill.

The Bill is important, as the Minister has said, because it brings media legislation into the digital age. Although the Bill lacks a commanding overall vision for broadcasting in the UK, the PSBs believe—and we think they are right—that it is in good shape as currently drafted and it will enable that sector to thrive and develop, not just here but will enable us to compete internationally, where our public service broadcasters are much admired.

The PSBs and other stakeholders are all rightly keen that the Bill passes into law as quickly as possible, so that they can have the long-awaited certainty they need for programming, commercial and long-term planning. However, that should not detract from our duty as legislators to ask questions of the Government and, where appropriate, to seek to amend the Bill. However, I assure the House and those listening eagerly to the debate that we support the Bill and will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to get it on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

We are also conscious that with advertising revenue shrinking in a highly competitive market, the commercial PSBs will not welcome any additional undue cost burdens being placed upon them. Several, including Channel 4 and ITV, have indicated that to remain sustainable as businesses, they will have to reshape their business model.

There are a number of key issues the House will want to scrutinise carefully, including prominence for our PSB services and ensuring that audiences are protected and have access to varied and high-quality content. We will want to ensure that Ofcom is empowered to achieve what is being asked of it as a robust regulator and, of course, that the legislation is future-proof.

We are pleased to see the case for prominence being updated has been recognised by the Government. Clause 28 is hugely important to the PSBs, extending it to cover services not currently included, such as interfaces on smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks. Given that Ofcom recommended this back in 2019, it is long overdue. This should make PSB content prominent on both linear and on-demand services and make public service content available and easy to find across the full range of television platforms.

We are aware that, in another place, some Members—notably, the chair of the DCMS Select Committee, Caroline Dinenage—made the case for a different wording for “prominence”. They argued that, instead of “appropriate” prominence, it should be “significant”. I am sure that the House will want to probe to ensure that the word “appropriate” is flexible and robust enough to do the job for the PSBs. It might be useful if the Minister could fill out in a little more detail the thinking behind the language used. I am not sure that Sir John Whittingdale’s clarification in the Commons quite did the job.

On assuring quality content for our audiences, we welcome the simpler, streamlined public service remit and believe that the Bill will enable a broader reach of audiences across a wider range of platforms. We will have questions to probe the genres included, or not included, in the remit, ensuring that the right safeguards are in place. We will also want to consider the details of Part 4 on video on demand regulation for both the industry and the audiences who access the services, including the tier model and age ratings.

On future-proofing, we welcome the listed events reforms, which will strengthen the role of public service media within the regime. However, this is one of the key areas where future-proofing the legislation comes into play, on the issue of digital rights for listed events in particular. Attention to digital rights will be necessary to enable UK audiences to come together for our biggest sporting events, whether this is online or through traditional linear broadcast outlets. Future-proofing will also be a key issue when we consider radio provisions in the Bill, including access to on-demand content and access through services other than smart speakers—particularly in cars, where car manufacturers can effectively become the default gatekeepers of radio access.

This Bill was much delayed in the 20 years since the Communications Act 2003. More generally, given the pace of change in the media world, can the Minister say today that the legislation is sufficiently flexible to match the changes and challenges that we can immediately foresee? Perhaps the Minister can assure noble Lords that the Secretary of State will keep under regular review the platforms through which PSB content can be viewed? This will surely be essential, given how technological developments are likely to work alongside shifting markets and audience expectations.

As I made plain at the outset, we are pleased that Channel 4 privatisation has been dropped. The Government have made two changes that materially affect Channel 4. The first is to place a sustainability duty on the company, and the second is the removal of the existing publisher-broadcaster restriction. The first change, relating to the duty, is, I hope, limited to ensuring the channel’s financial security and stability. Perhaps the Minister can say something about that when he comes to wind up. The lifting of the restriction on Channel 4’s ability to create content directly is clearly significant. I noted, as I am sure other noble Lords will have done, the careful response adopted by Channel 4 to this new freedom. The channel, having rightly made the argument about privatisation upsetting the broadcasting eco-structure, will not want to disrupt that same eco-structure through rapid expansion of in-house production, having carefully built up its commissioning role over the past 40 years.

With others, we are considering carefully what might need amending in the Bill. As well as the areas that I have referenced, there a few amendments that we feel are important in addressing possible gaps to the legislation. One that seems particularly important, given concerns about the viewing habits of children and young people, was that relating to a review looking at ensuring that they have access to public service content. With the dominance of smartphones and social media among young people as a means of viewing TV content, this would seem vitally important. We also support having a review within six months of the Bill passing into legislation on whether a Gaelic language service should be given a public service broadcast remit.

I finally come to the Government’s decision to bring forward the repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, relating to the Leveson provisions. In my opinion, it sits rather oddly in a Bill about broadcast media. But we are aware that this measure has manifesto cover from 2019 and we have not sought to remove it. From conversations with key stakeholders and noble Lords, it seems fair to say that the debate in this House will not focus solely on the question of repeal but will instead look at a range of possible amendments. In the Commons, Labour supported an amendment laid by George Eustice MP that would retain an incentive for newspapers to sign up to an approved regulator. This will, I am sure, be part of our conversations going forward. Ensuring access to justice and a free and important press is very much a live and current issue, and I look forward to hearing from noble Lords across the House today on that point.

In conclusion, this Bill is much needed and long overdue. The PSBs need it, the media world needs it, and it is welcome. Our approach will be to carefully listen to the arguments over points of contention. We have no intention of disrupting the architecture of the Bill or its main provisions. If we have an argument with the Government, it is simply this: instead of spending the last four years running down the excellence of our PSBs, they could have better spent that time promoting their strengths internationally and celebrating their role in helping make the UK the arts and culture superpower that we truly should become.

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat 4:45, 28 February 2024

My Lords, the Media Bill is good, but it can be better. That is what I trust we will achieve during its passage here.

We are so fortunate with our PSBs, which form a miraculous ecosystem that lies at the heart of our nation, our common understanding, our daily lives and our conversations. It is not only our unique selling point but the birthplace and cauldron that nurtures the extraordinary talents that we boast in this country. It is no mystery why the streamers have streamed here: tax breaks and talent. Paramount, among others, has spoken out about the importance of PSBs to inward investment. It says: “We have a special place in the UK market as a huge investor each year across film, pay TV, PSB, Channel 5 and streaming. We have always been very clear that PSBs are the cornerstone of the UK content sector and that is what makes it so attractive for inward investment”.

Budgets are being squeezed, and our PSBs are up against a proliferation of streamers with global competitors worldwide with very deep pockets; so, as we welcome the brilliant and differing content and jobs and inward investment that the streamers make, we need to ensure that the pure size and commercial power that the streamers have cannot simply ace them out. British dramas are great exports but are also important to our nation, as we recently saw with “Mr Bates”, but they are so much more. We want to make sure that we can keep making brilliant programmes like that, “Happy Valley” and “Line of Duty”, and that audiences can find them easily and significantly.

The elements of betterment to the Bill are no mystery: prominence, listed events, live coverage clips, fair coverage, Channel 4’s change to remit, genres, smart speakers, unfettered access, content classification, Section 40, video on demand, local radio and local content and accessibility, among others. We and others across this House will undoubtedly lay amendments to test these and many more.

The modernised mission statement for our PSBs replaces the original 14 objectives with four generalised requirements. We are concerned that removing Ofcom’s responsibility to monitor the delivery of content in specific areas of public benefit may see these less commercially viable, but vitally important, areas decline. The current Bill is framed in consumerist, rather than societal, terms. “Inform, educate and entertain” is a long-standing, overarching aim for our PSBs. Ofcom will have a statutory duty to measure delivery of this content if it is in the Bill, not in quantitative terms but overall.

I turn to prominence. How that word has gained prominence in my life in recent days—in fact, I would say it had gained “significant” prominence, not simply “appropriate” prominence. I literally do not understand what the Government have against “significant” rather than “appropriate”. If the PSBs are not there, right at the front of the queue for viewers’ attention, they simply will not get it. So I very much hope that the Government may move on that in due course. “Significant” will give more power and impetus to Ofcom to ensure that UK viewers and listeners can continue to access high-quality programming and journalism from our PSBs in an ever more cluttered media offering. I also could not help but notice that Amazon, in its evidence, prefers “appropriate” to “significant”—which makes me think that “significant” is definitely what we need.

By the mid-2030s, 80% of Brits will get stuff online, and we are concerned that big shopfronts such as Amazon and Google will sell that visibility—will sell their shopfronts and prominence. The Bill has to intervene in that market, because it is clear that these gigantic superpowers may obliterate all before them if left free to roam. While I love Amazon and Netflix—actually, I love all of them; I have far too many subscriptions for the time available to use them—I also love and value our ecosystem of creativity.

Amazon MGM, for example, which is the production and distribution arm, says that it has supported more than 16,000 full-time permanent jobs in 2022 and is creating new facilities at Shepperton. That is all brilliant, its investment goes right across the nations and it is working with film schools; but if we are not careful and we do not protect our PSBs, the cauldron of talent that is nurtured and grown by the BBC and others will be eaten up and will one day disappear. The very golden egg of whatever is in the water that grows our very British talent—I am sorry for those mixed metaphors —will have disappeared.

We are very happy that the Government cancelled their decision to privatise Channel 4, but we are concerned about what the change to empowering it to make its own programmes may do to the diversity and sustainability of the UK’s world-leading independent production sector and the employment and creativity it generates in the nations and regions. To date, Channel 4 says that that will not happen for at least five years, but as a publisher-broadcaster it does not produce its own programmes but commissions them instead every year from more than 300 independent production companies across the UK. Although it has come to rely on a few of the bigger ones it has created, for that investment in start- ups, it is very good that it does not have a list of preferred or approved production companies. That must not be put in jeopardy. It is the cauldron of our creators, and its future is vital in the role it plays in enabling small, new, inventive, adventurous programming. I think Margaret Thatcher had something to do with that.

The Bill makes it clear that listed event primary beneficiaries are terrestrial, and the existing regime makes it harder to hide behind a paywall. The Bill says the same should apply to streamers, but we need to extend that regime further in terms of digital rights, to clips and catch-up. People are increasingly accessing through digital and watch more and more after an event, using clips and catch-up, so these must not be hidden behind a paywall.

Undoubtedly, we will have to address the removal of Section 40, and on this we will find disagreement across the House. For these Benches, it is a bulwark against the overweening power of the press, let alone the inaccuracy and bias that already populates its titles. That power cannot remain untrammelled.

On radio, we need to ensure fairness in the choice of station, not unfair direction by owners of the appliance. There should be no charging of radio stations licensed by Ofcom, and we need to protect against overlaid unauthorised advertising. It is important that we have our own choice of what to listen to, be that national or local, entertainment, news, or other information. As this era of shifting and changing listening and viewing habits marches on, much of it online, we need to safe- guard the irreplaceable part radio plays in our lives. As smart speakers become more and more dominant, we need to ensure that such safeguards are in place.

On the nations and regions, local content is so important. We must ensure that appropriate and relevant material, not just local news, can reach local areas. We need diverse voices, and Welsh language and Gaelic broadcasting.

On inclusion, we need to be aware that millions still rely on free-to-air, but it is guaranteed only up to 2034. No long-term protections are in place and loss of these services would hit the most vulnerable, who are already disadvantaged by digital exclusion in so many ways. TV is a mainstay of the old, those without family and those who are lonely, as well as lower-income households, people living with disabilities and those in rural areas. Clear safeguards in law are needed.

Before I finish, I will say a little about Ofcom. It is growing and growing like Topsy, so I trust it will have the wherewithal not only to manage but excel at its task, employing the best for what will be a heavy responsibility going forward. Moreover, it is vital that dispute resolution is clear and attainable in the Bill. Ofcom needs to be empowered and powerful, and any issues need to be dealt with swiftly and strongly. To date, this has not been a noticeable feature of Ofcom, but it needs to be as it gets more and more responsibility.

We have something very special in this country. It is always difficult to put it into words, but it is part of our national identity; our cohesion; our unique selling point. We need this Bill to guard against any loss of that identity, or any damage to the creative furnace that is so important to our nation’s future. I and my colleagues look forward to working on the Bill and making it better than ever.