Media Ownership (Regulation)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 11:14 am, 14th September 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank Mr Allen for securing this important debate. I hope that he will not mind or become cynical, thinking that I am trying to neuter his remarks, if I use this opportunity to say how much I admire him from afar for not only his sterling work in the House to protect the interests of Parliament, with which I wholeheartedly agree—we need a stronger Parliament to hold the Executive to account—but his valuable work on early-years education and, perhaps most importantly, his support for the great sport of cricket.

The debate raises a number of important issues, and I welcome the opportunity to have a constructive discussion about some of them. Media ownership is a high-profile issue at the moment; questions about the plurality of the media and its implications are live. It is interesting that the issues regarding News Corp’s takeover of Sky and the furore that that created are combined with the rapid changes to the press that new technology is bringing. It is only right and proper for us to discuss such issues and rehearse how the Government intend to address them. We want to look at media ownership constructively, as we do not want to set ownership limits that would have a disproportionate effect on growth.

Before I come to the main points in response to the hon. Gentleman’s debate, let me briefly address the points raised by Susan Elan Jones in her intervention. I understand why she wanted to raise the issue of S4C. She is a champion of that important channel, which was set up in 1982 to promote Welsh language broadcasting and which has many glories to its name. I assure her that the Government intend to ensure that S4C remains a strong and independent force in broadcasting.

Our intention is that S4C should be funded via the BBC, and therefore the BBC should have some space on its board. There is already close collaboration between the BBC and S4C on the provision of news, for example. Nevertheless, there are important safeguards for independent content control for S4C. Discussions are currently ongoing between the BBC and S4C, which I understand are fruitful and productive.

On the debate secured by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, there are three areas that we need to look at: plurality, the Leveson inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and media ownership in general. As I said, the proposed takeover of Sky has brought the question of media plurality to the forefront. The News Corp bid highlighted problems with existing media ownership regulations that need to be discussed and debated.

When Ofcom produced its initial report on the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB, it identified a potential gap in the media ownership regime, which has been well aired. There is a potential weakness, in that the public interest test that accompanies questions about media plurality can be triggered only when a merger takes place. At present, the system cannot address concerns that arise from the organic growth of one particular media organisation.

We understand the need to look at the current system, but we do not want to rush into a change in media ownership regulations simply as a reaction to one controversial takeover bid. We do not want to make changes that could have knock-on effects further down the line, which we are not able to foresee. However, that does not take away from the fact that we want to investigate the issue thoroughly, rehearse and debate it in public and come to a conclusion as we approach the publication of a communications Bill and the parliamentary discussion of that Bill.

In the context of the Leveson inquiry, the hon. Gentleman also discussed the importance of regulation of the press, referring to the calls that have been going on for 20 years or more for proper independent regulation of the press. I note what he said about the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC has many critics, but it would say in its own defence that it works closely with people who have concerns about the press and often prevents the press from publishing damaging stories when agreement can be reached that a story is unfair. The good work of the Press Complaints Commission does not necessarily get the prominence that it deserves. However, the right of reply and the prominence of apologies are live issues that have been debated recently in the House.

Lord Justice Leveson is now conducting an inquiry focusing on the regulation of the press, the relationship between the police and the press and media ownership and plurality rules. Lord Justice Leveson held his first preliminary hearing last week; his work has only just started, and he has many issues to consider. The inquiry will concentrate initially on the behaviour and practices of the press, but he also intends to consider media plurality, as I said. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department will co-operate fully with the Leveson inquiry.

It is important to emphasise that the inquiry is completely independent. It is up to the inquiry to ask my Department for assistance rather than for us to be seen to influence the inquiry in any way. We are responding to information requests from the Leveson inquiry. When the report concludes, the Government will of course listen carefully to its recommendations and incorporate them, where appropriate, in final decisions about the Bill on media ownership and the future regulation of the press. We must be mindful of the time scale for the Leveson inquiry, which aims to examine the issues of press regulation and media ownership within a year. We want to hear what the inquiry says, as it will be a significant piece of work on media regulation.

In general, we believe that it is important for the media to reflect different viewpoints at national level and to safeguard democratic debate. Media ownership rules are important to prevent any one UK media company from obtaining too great a concentration of media power. Competition rules will usually ensure an outcome that promotes plurality, but not always, because they are designed to prevent abuses of market power. It is possible for someone to be dominant from a plurality point of view without acting in an anti-competitive fashion. Without additional plurality rules, we will be unable to prevent a concentration of media power.

As I said in my opening remarks, we are acutely aware of how changes to technology make media ownership and plurality complicated issues. The media landscape is changing rapidly, as is the way in which it influences debate and informs citizens. It is therefore even more important that the rules do not allow one person or organisation control over the entire media landscape. At the same time, it is also important that the rules do not unreasonably constrain the working of the market. We want a vibrant media sector capable of innovating and of attracting investment, ideas and skills. The challenge is to strike the right balance.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will make a speech this evening at the Royal Television Society conference. He will outline his early thinking on numerous issues across the media sector, and will address in particular media ownership, plurality and press regulation. As was reported earlier this week and as he will say this evening, the Secretary of State has asked Ofcom to prepare a report on the options for measuring media plurality given the new online world in which we exist, to recommend the best approach and to supply a copy of the report to the Leveson inquiry. That work will form part of our communications review, but I hope that it will also assist the Leveson inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman called on me and the Government to support a change now to media ownership regulations. Specifically, he asked us to support the proposals of the shadow Culture Secretary, Mr Lewis. With the greatest respect, I am not sure that those changes have been entirely thought through. I am not sure whether the shadow Secretary of State has the power to introduce such a change; my understanding is that the Enterprise Act 2002 allows only the Secretary of State to do so.

More importantly, to discuss the substance of the proposal rather than any technical hurdles to its adoption, Ofcom is already required to ensure that any person holding a broadcasting licence is and remains a fit and proper person to hold it. That requirement is ongoing, not a one-off requirement limited to mergers. I am not sure that the amendment is necessary, and it could narrow the scope of the current duty on Ofcom.

My further concern with the proposals of the hon. Member for Bury South, bearing in mind that he is not here to defend them, is that they could add to the politics of the situation rather than detract from them. The Secretary of State conducted himself impeccably throughout the News Corp takeover process. He sought legal advice at every stage, he was transparent and he published that legal advice when appropriate. Nevertheless, the fact that a politician had the final say in the takeover proposal allowed people to speculate that undue influence was being exercised. It therefore seems likely that the direction of travel in such contentious takeover proposals is to try as far as possible to remove politicians from the process.

What concerns me about the proposals of the hon. Member for Bury South, well meaning though they are, is that they would effectively allow a Secretary of State to take into account new factors, which seems wide open. Almost any factor could be taken into account and inserted into the current process, which would create enormous uncertainty for every media company in the country—and perhaps inadvertently increase, rather than reduce, political interference in such processes. For that reason, we do not support the proposals. The Secretary of State has written or will write a response to the letter sent to him by the hon. Member for Bury South calling for his support for the proposals.