Cairncross Review Debate

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Department: Scotland Office
Tuesday 12th February 2019

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Portrait Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and I guess we begin with the remark at the very end, which indicates that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle: we are where we are and we must look at this matter from here. I cannot, for my part, look at a consideration of this kind other than from the point of view of small local communities whose service—the service they receive from local press—will be radically affected by recent developments; indeed, it has been already. While the genie cannot be put back into the bottle, we should not hide from view, or fail to prioritise in our consideration, those communities whose cohesion is being reduced by the developments we are talking about.

Dame Frances has done a splendid job. I went to one of the consultation sessions she held here in Parliament and it is clear that she has these concerns too. Written journalism, in print or online, supplies the largest quantity of original journalism and is most at risk: the figures have been quoted. The reduction in public interest reporting, which again was particularly concentrated on in the report and in the Statement, seems to have an effect on community engagement, and that concerns me greatly. Local democracy, such as voter turnout and the accountability of local institutions, has been particularly undermined. The operation of the market that has taken so much advertising away from traditional local newspapers can easily be identified as a contributing factor—indeed, an overriding factor—in this demise. The report sets out some concrete proposals about how we might look at the question. I have not yet found myself able to intellectualise what can be done about the fact that advertising is being taken away through these platforms, even through the BBC’s local news availability projects, and how it can be restored, other than perhaps finding some way of taxing, controlling or regulating the way the market is operating—and we know that that is a difficult concept for many people.

The digital revolution has not just affected how people arrive at news online; it has also changed their habits and their attitudes to news. This, of course, is the problem. As it says in the report, people now skim for their news or scroll for their news; they passively absorb news. An increasing percentage of those who take news in whatever form are worried about “fake news”. People read material shown to them by platforms largely based on data analytics and algorithms. There is something terrifically unnerving about that. In this and other debates, week after week, we have heard concerns of this kind expressed from a number of directions.

We are told that editors no longer pay attention to how stories are ranked. They no longer take much time to consider how to display stories on their homepage. Instead, they are led by the study of the market, habits, customs and conventions. They let their news follow the way things are in the marketplace. In addition to that, mergers and acquisitions by digital giants have meant that more than half of all digital advertising revenues are now hoovered up by just two companies. In the light of all this debilitation—and there is so much more that could be rehearsed—I ask the Minister how we can redress the balance.

I began my working life as a reporter on a local newspaper. Every week, I was responsible for the front page of the Burry Port Star. It was an organ of considerable influence—

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Hear, hear.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Portrait Lord Griffiths of Burry Port
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Now your Lordships are rising to the bait, which I appreciate. It was, of course, the same newspaper in Llanelli—and in Llangennech and Llwchwr—but the front page was different. When somebody had moved out of a house, a boat had sunk, somebody had passed the 11-plus or there was to be a flower-arranging display in one of the local chapels, it was my job to tell the community about it.

Community cohesion is undergirded by an active press. None of us should simply take for granted that its disappearance will not have effects. How can the Government address this? The BBC has embedded reporters into local areas, which is brilliant. How much more of this can we hope to do? What about the idea of a regulator, which was picked out from the report by the press this morning? How effective will such a regulator be? What will his or her terms of reference be? Will there be teeth to the job that that person is asked to do?

There are so many questions, but above and beyond them is a very real concern. This is a matter which belongs to Parliament as a whole—and to bipartisan approaches—and is a real problem at a local level. I conclude my remarks by emphasising once again the levels of concern, the health of communities and the need for instruments such as a local newspaper to forge an identity for a locality. Burry Port was never Llangennech, and Llwchwr was never Llanelli, because the press helped us give expression to a real sense of identity. How on behalf of the Government will the Minister—and how will we as a Parliament—make practical proposals to achieve these noble ends?

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, paints a romantic and nostalgic picture of the local press, and he is right to do so. But, in trying to solve the problems that face us in somehow helping the Burry Port Star, we must beware. The press owners have come with a begging bowl. They earlier proclaimed their resistance to any government interference, but quite ready to dip their hands into the public purse are very large and rich companies, many of which have delivered redundancy after redundancy to local papers in favour of their shareholders.

That is one of the reasons why local journalism is in the state that it is in. I also suggest that the National Union of Journalists might be added to the list of people to consult that the Minister read out. There is a serious challenge to local media. Dame Frances set it out very bleakly in her report and the Minister repeated it. There is massive technological change and that impacts on how news is received and—particularly with the under-25s—how it is digested.

I welcome some of the actions announced by the Minister to refer some of the recommendations to relevant bodies. However, the ambitions of the Government and newspaper proprietors would be more credible if they had not been so eager to bury the Leveson report and ignore its call for the establishment of a regulator set up by royal charter which could do many of the tasks called for in this report.

As I said, freedom from Government does not seem to stop the press barons from dipping into the public purse. Therefore, although I welcome the recommendations on digital and media literacy, online advertising and news quality obligations, we should be hard-nosed about how and where tax relief and innovation fund money is spent. It is not there simply to line the pockets of Newsquest, JPI Media and Reach, which are all big, profitable companies that have taken the lion’s share of the existing Local Democracy Reporting Service, which costs the BBC £8 million.

Some of the powers advocated in this report could be taken on by the Press Recognition Panel, the independent body established by Parliament under royal charter. The recommendations on how to bring the FANGs within the rule of law go wider than the issues covered by this report but its recommendations on new codes of conduct for online platforms are to be welcomed.

But what do we find in the report? As usual, it is a quick dive to try to weaken the BBC. In almost 40 years of being involved in this I have explained to various media proprietors that 90 years ago a Conservative Government had the common sense to nationalise the BBC as a public service broadcaster with a mandate that consciously distorted the market in favour of public service broadcasting. They want to have a go at the BBC online because it carries the same credibility and weight as the broadcast BBC. I hope that although the Minister has asked Ofcom to look at this, Ofcom will be very sceptical about trying to weaken one of the strongest public service journalism outlets in this country, one which should be defended.

I hope also that the Minster will use his good influence to secure a full day’s debate in this House. This is an important report; so is the one published today by the Press Recognition Panel. This is an ongoing debate and the knowledge that exists in this House would be of benefit in taking a very wide agenda forward.