Amendment 45

Media Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 20 May 2024.

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Lord Lansley:

Moved by Lord Lansley

45: Schedule 2, page 128, line 8, at end insert—“55A In section 324 (setting and publication of standards), in subsection (2)(a), for “teletext services”, substitute “news content, where it is provided by broadcasters in any format”.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would place an obligation on OFCOM to consult those using news content provided by broadcasters, in place of users of teletext services, when preparing the Standards Code.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

My Lords, Amendment 45 is unrelated to the other amendments in the group, which is described as “miscellaneous”. I might be allowed not to venture any comment on the Government’s technical amendments and confine myself just to say something on Amendment 54A. In light of all the things we have heard about the changing nature of access to television and televisual material—and radio, I suspect—the reliance on digital access and the limitations on access to the wide range of programmes we presently enjoy for those who lack digital connectivity is an issue certainly worth exploring. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on tabling Amendment 54A.

My Amendment 45 is really just a probing amendment to find out about the process by which a consultation is to take place before Ofcom conducts its standards code. Noble Lords will recall that in Clause 26 we brought the legislation into line with reality and the public teletext services disappeared, so asking Ofcom to consult those who use it would be unnecessary—pointless.

Strictly speaking, consulting those who use television programmes and radio services is perfectly sufficient for the standards code. However, given the standards code and the requirements relating to news impartiality and news accuracy, the special impartiality requirements in Section 320 of the Communications Act, and the fact that the consultation on teletext was about, in a sense, the ways in which broadcasters give the public access to news, I thought it might be helpful to suggest that it might be a good idea for the consultation on the standards code, whenever it happens, to take particular account of how public service broadcasters, by whatever format, set out to give the public access to news, in line with the standards objectives. I am hoping that Ministers would commend that, whether we need to write it into the Bill or not, and that it might be given special attention rather than simply being ignored when we lose teletext and its reference to news in the standards code. I beg to move Amendment 45.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said about the group being “miscellaneous”. It suggests it is a bit of a hotchpotch when, in fact, the noble Lord has already asked some very pertinent questions, which my noble friend’s Amendment 54A asks as well. It intends to probe the Government’s intentions to address digital exclusion relating to access to television. Quite a few of the stakeholders raised this issue with us as we prepared for this Bill; I think they will have done with other noble Lords as well.

The amendment asks the Secretary of State to

“prepare and lay before Parliament a report on the impact on the UK economy of addressing digital exclusion”, including,

“an assessment of the impact of current and future levels of digital exclusion” and

“an assessment of the likely costs of delivering a programme to … drive uptake of internet connectivity”— an issue we have discussed in the House on many occasions—

“and digital devices to support access to television and … provide suitable support for skills development for those who need it in order to access television services”.

If the Bill is about the future and what might happen, we also have to address the fact that there will be millions of our fellow citizens who will not have access in different ways. We need to take account of that and work out how best we can approach it. That is what the amendment is about.

With his Amendment 45, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, raises issues about how we look to the future to ensure that the Bill is comprehensive and covers the issues that need to be covered when preparing the standards code.

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, “miscellaneous” is certainly one of those words that we use in your Lordships’ House and mean all manner of things by it.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lansley for his Amendment 45, which probes the Bill by seeking to amend the Communications Act 2003 to require Ofcom to consult those interested in news content provided by broadcasters in any format before setting broadcasting standards. As he set out, this aims to reflect the shifts we have seen in recent years towards digital news consumption. However, the Government do not believe it is necessary to make changes such as these to the requirements on Ofcom, which would blur the lines between the regulation of television on the one hand and the regulation of the press on the other. That is because we do not intend to amend the regulation of the press or of broadcast news content.

We are committed to protecting media freedom and the invaluable role of a free press in our society and democracy. As part of this, we are committed to upholding independence of the press and taking steps to preserve the existing system of self-regulation. That is why we are repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, and why we acted, through the Online Safety Act, to preserve the ability of readers to access recognised news publishers’ content online. The world of television is naturally different. For almost a century, what we have seen on the small screen has been underpinned by a clear set of broadcasting standards. This is something that UK audiences have come to know and value.

In a sense, this amendment addresses one potential boundary issue: the treatment of news websites, and in particular those run by broadcasters themselves—into which category are they to fall? Our considered view is that, in general, such websites are the digital extension not of television but of newspapers. A number of factors point towards this, not least that they are text-based and, in sharp contrast to teletext, rarely accessed from a television set. Viewed in this way, it is clearly inappropriate to apply the Broadcasting Code to them. I thank my noble friend for his probing amendment, but I hope I have reassured him why we do not need to add it to the Bill.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for Amendment 54A, and for starting an important debate on digital inclusion as it relates to television. I agree with them that it is essential that access to high-quality television is universal and should not be dependent on having a high level of digital skills. In previous debates on this Bill, we have already discussed the importance of ensuring that nobody is left behind. I hope I was able to reassure noble Lords that the Government have guaranteed the provision of digital terrestrial television until 2034 at least, and that to turn off this technology would require primary legislation. We know that a key benefit of this technology is how easy it is to use, and we will continue to protect the millions of households that rely on it.

At the same time, many people are choosing to watch some or all of their television via the internet as it allows them more choice and functionality than traditional ways of watching. Currently, almost 98% of premises across the UK have access to a superfast connection—over 30 megabits per second—which is normally sufficient to watch or listen online. Ofcom data suggests that almost three-quarters of us have chosen to take up such a service. In addition, 82% of homes now have access to gigabit broadband, and the Government’s target is to connect over 99% of the UK by 2030. We want to ensure that as many people as possible take up these broadband services, and we are glad to see increased take-up rates. We would expect to see more and more people take advantage of these speeds over time.

Our current work on the future of TV distribution has audiences at its heart, and will need carefully to consider the important issues the noble Lord and the noble Baroness raise through their amendment. I am glad to say that last week my honourable friend Julia Lopez, the Minister for Media, Tourism and the Creative Industries, announced an audience engagement project, which will directly engage audience members to understand what drives viewer decisions and any challenges they may have in accessing television. I will be happy to update your Lordships’ House on this work in due course.

This is an important debate, but given that it is ongoing, as is the work on it, I hope the noble Lord and noble Baroness will be content not to press their amendment. I thank them for sparking the debate with it.

I turn to the government amendments in my name in this miscellaneous group; namely, Amendments 52, 55, 56, 68 and 82. Again, this is a technical group of amendments. Amendments 52, 68 and 82 will ensure that general restrictions on disclosure of information can continue to function as intended in the Communications Act. These are three consequential amendments to ensure consistency across Section 393 of the Communications Act, which covers the general restrictions on disclosure of information relating to an individual business.

Government Amendments 55 and 56 correct references to S4C in relation to the digital terrestrial television and listed events regimes. In updating the way that S4C and its services are described better to reflect its position today, the Bill removes some definitions of S4C contained in the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Communications Act 2003. The new amendments remove two cross-references to those definitions. That removal is necessary to ensure clarity and consistency across our legislative framework, and to remove any uncertainty. I hope noble Lords will support those amendments.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative 6:45, 20 May 2024

My Lords, I am most grateful to those who participated in this short debate. I thought they raised some useful points.

I think my noble friend may have slightly misinterpreted Amendment 45. I was not in any way trying to extend the standards code to the online activity or websites of the press. I am not interested in that. If anything, what I am really interested in is that we have a number of broadcasters—the BBC, Sky, ITV—each of which has, in addition to its broadcast activity, significant online news presentations. This has not happened, and I am not accusing anybody of doing anything, but I know from past experience just how important it is who chooses what is regarded as the most important news at any given time.

The essence of many of these news online websites is that they are determining what the public are being told are the lead news stories at this moment. To that extent, although they are technically on demand because you can pull down the video clips from Sky News or from ITV or wherever, actually the presentation of those choices is important. I hope those broadcasters will continue to make responsible, impartial and accurate decisions, but if they were not to do so and they are broadcasters, I do not think the standards code would apply to them because this is not covered by their broadcast activity. However, I think it ought to: public service broadcasters, in so far as they are active in news promotion and presentation, should be accountable through the standards code for what they do.

I know my noble friend will recognise that this debate is part of a broader issue, which I want to pursue when I can, relating to the structure of the media public interest test and the importance of these tests in the standards code in relation to news generally and extending the media public interest to those who are responsible for the agglomeration and selection of content for news presentations on a wider set of platforms. I cannot do it in this Bill or in this amendment, but I hope to have the chance to do it sometime. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 45.

Amendment 45 withdrawn.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed.

Clause 28: Prominence on television selection services

Amendments 46 and 47 not moved.