Media Ownership (Regulation)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee 10:59 am, 14th September 2011

My hon. Friend makes her point very eloquently, and the Minister will no doubt wish to refer to it in his concluding remarks.

Those of us who support effective regulation are the friends of an evolving, developing, vibrant and refreshed media and will not be painted as people who do not want diversity. On the contrary, the people who object to diversity and plurality are the very people who have a monopolistic settlement that they wish to preserve. It is very important to consider this matter, and that Lord Leveson, with the Minister’s encouragement, looks at proper regulation, not by the Government but by a strong, independent regulator that is respected by all parties. That should not be feared. We can consider the ethical codes that apply to the BBC and to independent television. Those codes are fair, uncontroversial and totally accepted, and there is absolutely no reason why we should not aspire to the same sets of ethics for the press.

Tougher media ownership laws are required in this country; the ownership of the press needs to be at the forefront of the debate. I hope that Lord Leveson does not decide that there has to be a totally comprehensive and coherent cross-media ownership set of rules, or that he is paralysed by dealing with sectoral ownership in the press, television or other media outlets. There should never again be the concentration of unaccountable power in this country that we have seen in the media in recent years.

While there is a well-documented history of the rich and powerful abusing media ownership and resisting regulation, there is also a history, from this place, of efforts to attempt to tackle the abuses. I would like to pay tribute to a former colleague, Clive Soley, who in 1992, when he was the MP for Hammersmith, called for a new independent press authority to investigate and monitor ethical standards of the press, distribution of newspapers, ownership and control of media, access to information, restrictions on reporting and any related matter that that authority might consider. He could have been speaking at the end of the recent hacking scandal, and I hope that Mr Soley feels that his day may soon dawn.

Certainly, the long-running weaknesses of the Press Complaints Commission have recently been starkly exposed, and it is here that self-regulation most clearly fails. Many of us may have suffered from being traduced in the media. We complain, and then the complaint disappears into the bowels of the PCC. Many months later, if we are lucky, we may get a microscopic apology on an obscure website. That is frankly no longer acceptable in a modern democracy and needs to be examined. Lord Leveson also needs to look at a right of reply that can be fairly and practically implemented, so that people feel that they have redress if they are wronged or feel wronged by the press.

I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport stated that we need to look carefully at cross-media ownership laws and whether the merger rules for media takeovers work as effectively as they could. Consideration must also be given to the suitability of those who push for greater slices of the media pie for themselves. Does the Minister support my call for a negative resolution of this House that would explicitly enable his boss, the Culture Secretary, to take the public interest into account, and which would give him the ability to order a fit and proper person test to be carried out in any future media acquisition? It would be a simple and modest safeguard to look after the interests of the broader media family. Also, does the Minister agree that an immediate amendment to the Enterprise Act 2002 to allow the public interest and a fit and proper person test to be taken into account in media takeovers would be a positive step that should secure all-party support? In doing that, along with introducing tougher cross-media ownership laws and ensuring the plurality of the media, we will finally be able to begin to develop a plural and diverse media in the UK and to tackle the causes of some of the gross abuses of power that we have seen from the rich and the powerful who own those organisations.

The key question is whether there is the will to do it. I hope that given the recent scandals, the Government can take courage from the public reaction to take the necessary steps. There is a moment here. Many of us have waited many years for it, and if it is not seized, we could wait many more years to give the press and the media the boost, encouragement and boldness to start to be a new part of a wider, broader and democratised constitution. Can the House of Commons, enfeebled by years of subservience to the Government and the media, also help to seize the opportunity? The jury must be out on that particular question.

If we get those two big institutions—the Government and Parliament—to work as effective partners with the media, instead of sour cynicism, denigration and mutual recrimination, we could enter a new partnership between those three institutions, with all of them playing an enhanced role. I hope that that will happen. If we do that, Parliament can be less inhibited in holding the Government to account and, above all, it will increase the potential for the Government to work for the future rather than for the next day’s headlines.