Amendment 89

Media Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 22 May 2024.

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston:

Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston

89: After Clause 51, insert the following new Clause—“Review: impact of this Act on the ownership of UK broadcasters(1) Within one year of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a review of the impact of provisions in this Act on the ownership of UK broadcasters, including their ownership by a foreign power.(2) The Secretary of State must consult such persons they consider appropriate in preparing the review under subsection (1).(3) The review under subsection (1) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament for debate.(4) A foreign power for these purposes of subsection (1) has the same meaning as in Section 70E of the Enterprise Act 2002 inserted by Schedule 6 of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Act 2024.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to review of the impact of provisions in this Act on the ownership of UK broadcasters, including their ownership by a foreign power.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I am pleased to move the final amendment to this Bill in Committee. Noble Lords will recall that we debated foreign government ownership of UK news at Second Reading, courtesy of my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment to the Motion regretting that the issue was not in scope of this Bill.

However, it was possible to protect UK newspapers and news magazines from being owned, controlled or influenced by foreign powers via the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. I was going to say that I very much hope that the Bill gets on to the state book swiftly, but now we know that we are entering wash-up, I am sure that it will be top of the list as it is very nearly there anyway. The scope of the DMCC Bill did not allow us to close any gap in the legal framework that could allow a foreign power to own, control or influence news websites and our broadcasters. During the debates on that Bill, my noble friend the Minister said that the Government would bring forward secondary legislation to deal with online news and that we could deal with broadcasters in this Media Bill.

Before I return to this Bill, I would be grateful if my noble friend, when he comes to wind up, could update us on when we should expect to see the regulations relating to online news. Clearly, I take account of the news of this afternoon but, none the less, are these regulations ready? Has the work been done so that they are ready to be brought forward, even if it is not possible to deal with them in the short time that we now have available? Can he also tell me whether the regulations will address the concerns that were raised some time ago about what are known as “online news creators”, who are not currently covered by any of Ofcom’s ownership regime. I am talking about the kind of organisations, usually platforms, that now have huge influence and control over the news online but do not qualify as owners of news organisations. If he could cover that as well, it would be useful.

Indeed, while he is at it, can my noble friend update us on the timing of the regulations for what we termed the “carve-out” for non-direct foreign state investors in newspapers, capped at 5%? These are the regulations that would bring into effect that bit of the new regime for newspaper ownership which addressed the important aspect of financing and the sustainable future of newspapers. That is also an important objective.

To go back to this Media Bill, regrettably, and contrary to what my noble friend had hoped, foreign power ownership of broadcasters is not in scope. Sadly, the limit of this amendment—which, as noble Lords will be able to spot, is drafted in a roundabout way to make it within scope—is to require the Secretary of State to do a review so that the gap in the legal framework can be closed. Of course, I acknowledged during the debates on the DMCC Bill, when broadcasters were raised, that quite a comprehensive media ownership regulatory regime is already in place. However, we need to put beyond doubt the risk that exists in relation to foreign powers. There is no clear block, just as we discovered there was not in relation to newspapers and news magazines.

When it comes to UK broadcast news channels, we should reflect on the fact that Comcast has committed to Sky News only until 2028; Paramount, the owner of Channel 5, is subject to ongoing speculation about its ownership; and, as we saw recently with News UK’s decision to move away from TalkTV, broadcast news is a very expensive business and most news channels are operating with losses. They are therefore vulnerable to being targeted by those with deep pockets who seek power and influence.

Since tabling this amendment, however, I have learned that Ofcom’s next scheduled review of the media ownership rules will be published in November this year. It would therefore be possible for foreign power ownership to form part of that review. As I understand it, however, for that to happen, the Secretary of State would have to issue instructions to Ofcom. When Ofcom’s CEO was before my committee last week, she was under the impression that the issue would be dealt with in the Media Bill, so there is some confusion out there as to how and when this matter will be dealt with. Of course, it does not need to be looked at via the media ownership rules; it could be addressed through an amendment to the Enterprise Act in the context of the mergers regime.

My main point, however, is that the risk of a foreign power owning, controlling or influencing our news channels, public service broadcasters, or indeed any broadcaster or platform such as Sky, is real and needs addressing as soon as possible. What I am looking for today is clarity and a commitment from the Minister on when and how the Government intend to do just that. While I know that it will not happen this side of a general election, it would be good to know whether the officials are already working on it, so that they can continue working on it during the general election campaign and be ready for Ministers to act on it after the general election takes place.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, on these Benches, we wholeheartedly support Amendment 89 and the case made for it by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I sense that this debate is coming rapidly to a close. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, has doggedly pursued this issue with others and I wholeheartedly congratulate her on her determination to ensure that we maintain a free and fair press without foreign intervention.

This amendment takes the noble Baroness’s critique of foreign state ownership a stage further by seeking to review the impact of the measure on UK broadcasters. Obviously, government should always keep under careful consideration and review the impact of particular policies. This will, I suspect, be a feature of debate from time to time. We need to consider the impact of foreign ownership on all news media outlets, not just the press, and we need to understand, and protect our press from, undue interference. We have made it clear on our Benches, throughout the debates on the future of the Telegraph Group, that we are fully committed to upholding press freedom and the independence of all news outlets.

We cannot tolerate external interference in the politics of our country; that does not really need underlining much more on a day like today. At a time when the media are often being attacked by the exercise of deepfakes, this vital principle takes on a new importance. We need to ensure in the future, as much as we can, that our democracy is protected. A free and independent press and broadcasting sector is key to that, so I hope the Minister will give a considered response to that point.

I particularly pick up on the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, about regulations relating to the amendments we recently passed to another Bill. I do not think they are otiose, despite the calling of an election. They will be important in the future, and she is right to insist that work should be carried on to ensure that they are properly and correctly drafted so that they can be reviewed when a new Government are in place. Her point on the Ofcom review of ownership rules, which is to commence in November, is an important insight and one that we clearly all need to concentrate on and give some thought to while we go through the electoral process.

I am going to go slightly off-piste here before we conclude this debate and thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for the time that he and I have spent together across the Dispatch Box and for the courtesies he has extended to me, my noble friend Lady Thornton and other colleagues during the passage of this legislation. I particularly enjoyed the contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and, although she is not in her place, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, for her continued and assiduous interest in this. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, who is a powerful and important voice in your Lordships’ Chamber.

I suspect we will not have much more debate on the Media Bill, wash-up being the vicious process that it is, but we on these Benches have been happy to support it in the main. I am sorry we will not have the opportunity to give it a bit more detailed scrutiny on Report, but that is the nature of how we do our business. I thank the Minister for his attention to this, and I look forward to listening to his response.

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, an afternoon is certainly a long time in politics and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is probably right that this is a good moment to thank all noble Lords who have given detailed consideration to the Bill in Committee, and indeed during its pre-legislative scrutiny. It has been fortunate in the sense that it was scrutinised before it came to your Lordships’ House, it was improved by that process and we have had very good debates throughout this Committee. I too am grateful for the courtesies, the time and attention that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness opposite have given to the Bill, as well as the noble Lord and the noble Baroness on the Lib Dem Front Bench and noble Lords across the Chamber. I am glad we have been able to dedicate a lot of time to this, both in the Chamber and outside. It has been a pleasure working with them.

On the amendment, it is a delight to be able to join in the praise that was directed to my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston for her very careful consideration of matters not just in this Bill but on related issues in the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

The Government are committed to a pluralistic media landscape in which the public can access a wide range of accurate, high-quality news, views and information. Maintaining a free and thriving press is both a government-wide commitment and a personal priority for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who recognises, as I know my noble friend does, that our free press is a key pillar of our healthy and vital democracy. We acknowledge that the acquisition of UK news organisations by foreign states would run the risk of eroding trust in those vital organisations. This concern was the driving factor behind the introduction of the new foreign state intervention regime for newspapers and periodical news magazines, for which my noble friend was a compelling advocate.

It is clear from my noble friend’s remarks that the same concerns that led to the creation of that regime are also the motivation for the amendment she has tabled on ownership of UK broadcasters, including their ownership by a foreign power. Let me start by making clear that the restrictions on foreign state ownership of newspapers are designed to meet concern about a very specific risk, and the same approach is not necessarily appropriate for broadcasters. Newspapers and news magazines have a primary function to provide news and information, and therefore play a targeted role in helping to shape opinions and contributing to wider political debate. While our television and radio broadcasters also play a crucial role in the news landscape, their role is considerably more diverse, and the holding of a broadcasting licence is already well regulated through existing legislation.

Television and radio broadcasters in the UK operate within a well-established licensing regime overseen by Ofcom. As the independent regulator, it ensures that persons who own or control a licence are “fit and proper” to hold that licence and follow Broadcasting Code rules. There are also limitations on the persons who may hold or control broadcasting licences. For example, any

“body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature” cannot hold a licence.

Additionally, TV and radio broadcasters are, like the press, subject to the media mergers regime. This can include consideration of whether an acquiring party has a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards. These powers can be used if a foreign state controlled body—for example, a body partially owned by a foreign state—were to seek to acquire a major UK broadcaster.

Finally, the Government also have tough powers, through the National Security and Investment Act, to tackle foreign interference and to scrutinise and, if necessary, intervene in acquisitions on national security grounds in the case of a transaction involving a major broadcaster such as Sky or ITV. The Government are satisfied that the cumulative effect of these different restrictions is de facto to prevent foreign states controlling TV and radio services in the United Kingdom.

I acknowledge my noble friend’s point that she is highlighting what she sees as a potential weakness, but the foreign state newspaper ownership requirements are a specific measure to deal with the clear gap in protections that she has ably pointed out. We think the risks here are very different and that there is no need, given the other protections I have set out, for an extension.

Turning very briefly to the specific requirements of my noble friend’s amendment—

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 8:15, 22 May 2024

Before my noble friend moves on, would it not be appropriate, none the less, for Ofcom, when it does its media ownership rules review, to just consider again whether there are any weaknesses in the existing regime? He may be right that what is now in place for newspapers, or will soon be in place, may not be directly appropriate for broadcasters: a cut and paste may not be the right thing. Because it emerged only in the process of using the existing regime that there was a weakness in that regime, and we have had to take the steps that we have, it seems prudent for Ofcom to satisfy itself that there are no potential weaknesses in its ownership rules that ought to be addressed before they are put to the test.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Perhaps the Minister will comment on whether this matter has been under active consideration, because I think that is important. There is a shared concern across the Chamber on this, and the noble Baroness has touched on a very good point.

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

I certainly think it would be prudent for Ofcom to consider that. It is a matter for Ofcom, and it is important that I do not put words in its mouth as an independent regulator, but it is important that it can do that and make its representations to the Government, to Parliament and publicly, in an independent way. On the extent to which it has done so to date, it is probably better if I set that out in writing so that I am able fully to account for what has been done so far. In brief, it is a matter for Ofcom as the independent regulator, and it has the means to set that out.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I can advise the noble Lord that, during the period between now and the general election, he will be the Minister most watched and listened to.

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

Thank you. Let me turn to the questions posed by my noble friend Baroness Stowell. She asked when we should expect to see the regulations relating to online news. We will shortly consult on expanding the existing media measures regime and the foreign state ownership provisions to include online news websites. That will enable us to make changes which ensure that online news, whether from an established newspaper group or an online publisher, is covered by the media regime and the new measures we are introducing for foreign state media ownership.

My noble friend is right about civil servants’ ability to carry on working even during the election period. Judging from the activity in my private office, I can certainly say that they are already springing into action on a number of fronts in the best traditions of the Civil Service. Work will of course continue as it always does, notwithstanding an election. This is an opportunity for me to thank the officials who have been working on the Bill and who will continue to work on these areas—rather hastily—over the next few days, but also more broadly on an ongoing basis in the way we have set out.

My noble friend mentioned the review of media ownership rules. I confirm that Ofcom can look at whatever it would like to in its review of the rules. The Secretary of State does not have to issue instructions to Ofcom to do so. I am happy to clarify that and, I hope, assist with some of the confusion which my noble friend has pointed out.

On the timing of regulations for what we termed the “carve-out”, as my noble friend knows, we are currently undertaking a consultation on proposed regulations to follow the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill to ensure that the drafting achieves our stated policy objectives in terms of the partial carve- out of small minority stakes held by sovereign wealth funds. The regulations will be finalised when the consultation concludes. We hope then to align the timeline for the introduction of these regulations with the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

I am grateful to both the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Bassam, for their support for this amendment. Before I withdraw it, I want to check on a couple of things that my noble friend has just said.

On the media ownership rules review by Ofcom, my noble friend said that it is a matter for Ofcom and clarified that the Secretary of State does not need to issue an instruction. He emphasised that Ofcom is independent, and it is a matter for it. However, I am saying that Parliament wants it to look at the rules. I know that my erstwhile noble friend Lord Grade is listening, and it is fortuitous that the chairman of Ofcom is also a Member of your Lordships’ House. It would be reassuring to know that the Government, having listened to this debate today, will say to Ofcom that the media ownership rules review that it is about to conduct should look at foreign state ownership. I do not see how that in any way undermines or jeopardises its independence. I urge my noble friend to do that.

On the online news regulations and the work being done on that, the other issue was the category known as “online news creators”; that is, not just the news websites but this other, powerful force in news online. It does not necessarily involve a platform owning a news site but refers to just how much they are able to have an impact on the success, or otherwise, of other news organisations. It sounds like that is not part of what the officials are looking at. Perhaps the Minister can consider this and write to me. It would be helpful to get some clarity on that too.

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

I am very happy to do that. In relation to Ofcom’s review, my noble friend draws a helpful distinction. It is clear from the debate—which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth, has heard—what Parliament is keen for Ofcom to do. There is a material difference between Parliament sending a message and government sending a message. Ofcom is an independent regulator. I am sure that it will heed what is said in Parliament, but I think it is better that it hears it from Parliament and is not instructed by the Government. It is an independent regulator, and I am sure the noble Lord will have heard the debate and feed it back to his colleagues.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

I am grateful to my noble friend. I withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 89 withdrawn.

Amendments 90 and 91 not moved.

Clauses 52 to 54 agreed.

Clause 55: Commencement

Amendment 92 not moved.

Amendment 93 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendment 94 not moved.

Amendment 95 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Clause 55 agreed.

Clause 56 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with amendments.