Lord McNally debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 23rd May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage & 3rd reading
Mon 20th May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage
Wed 8th May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage part two
Mon 17th Jul 2023
Wed 12th Jul 2023
Tue 9th May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Tue 2nd May 2023
Online Safety Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2

Media Bill

Lord McNally Excerpts
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, I was happy to add my name to this, because it underlines the benefit of Channel 4. I am always a little worried that, if you leave gaps in behaviour, the bean-counters will take opportunities and the good intentions will take a back seat—so I am not afraid of asking for specifics.

It is important to remember—I hope that Channel 4 remembers this—that, when it was under threat not so very long ago, it was many of the people who have spoken today and previously during the passage of this Bill who were strongest in the belief that Channel 4 brings something special to our broadcasting. For me, one of its most special contributions has been seeking out creatives in the regions and giving them the opportunity to succeed. This amendment underpins that good record of Channel 4 so far and helps to see it into the future.

Baroness Benjamin Portrait Baroness Benjamin (LD)
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My Lords, I rise to speak on Amendment 8 in my name with a heavy heart, in the hope that someone out there is listening. I declare an interest as per the register.

The review amendment that I propose is intended not simply as an exercise in public service media management but as a vital contribution to the future well-being of children and young people in this country—that is, to their sense of worth, their understanding, their place in our society, their appreciation of the many and varied cultures of our society, and, in the final analysis, the future of public service media as a whole.

If millions of children and young people are no longer watching the television that is made for them on PSB channels—it is crafted, curated and considered age-appropriate and relevant to their lives as British kids—how can we hope that they will suddenly, on becoming adults, turn to the BBC for their news or even to other public service providers for information, entertainment or programmes for their children? They will not; they will have lost the habit of believing that powerful content that offers meaning to their lives as British people is provided for them by public service media.

I say this because research by the Children’s Media Foundation has found it to be the case. As Ofcom’s statistics prove, children have migrated away from watching linear television. Many are also unaware of the online platforms provided by the PSB broadcasters that this Bill seeks to bring into public service measurement and regulation.

Your Lordships may feel that young children—their grandchildren, perhaps—are still watching dedicated PSB channels, such as like CBeebies and Milkshake!. However, that is not the case for children over the age of seven. Many parents will tell you that their children are now in their bedrooms using mobile devices, phones and tablets to access their media choices, which opens them up to a world of content offered by YouTube and other providers. On demand and immediate, much of it is loud, frantic and attractive but little of it is made with the care that has been the hallmark of public service television for children since the 1950s.

I spoke to a head teacher just yesterday, who told me that many of the children in her school are speaking with American accents because they are influenced by what they watch on online platforms, which is not age appropriate. Despite the Online Safety Act addressing some of the most outrageous harms in these online spaces, nothing is being done to regulate the spaces for good content, which parents need to feel they can trust. Parents are looking to the Government to reassure them that this is happening. That is what public service media is about: it is there to regulate the broadcasters, to ensure that those who have captured the eyes and minds of British children, while being allowed to make a reasonable return on their investment, will always also give back something of meaning and purpose. That has worked since the 1950s, when commercial television started. It was made to work again when cable and satellite channels increased, and it can be made to work again in a new public service environment, which will definitely include shared video services such as YouTube, TikTok and others that may follow.

My amendment seeks to start a process where we can investigate the real future of public service broadcasting in this country, beyond the confines of the current Bill, through a review. It sets down a marker, like those in so many other countries around the world, that says: we are not prepared to carry on burying our heads in the sand; we will investigate the ways in which these devices can be regulated to offer prominence to public service content; and we will explore the feasibility of levies or incentives, to ensure that they share their advertising revenue with producers of content that is relevant, appropriate and local to the UK, and has the power—which all public service content has—to connect people with the world, rather than disconnect them from it.

All my amendment asks for is that we explore possible futures and are open to change. Change has already arrived for our children and young people, who, in ever greater numbers, are watching and being influenced by inappropriate and harmful videos, rather than material that speaks to their lives in positive ways. It is time for the Government and the entire country to wake up to the fact that the algorithms that push that content on our children are not regulated. They work entirely to increase revenue and profit, most of which is not distributed back to the children’s content producers. They do not take into account age relevance or the social value of what they push—and until we at least begin to discuss the potential for regulation, they will not do so. I simply ask the Minister: is that what we want our children to grow up with?

Supporting this amendment is the start of a new way of thinking about how we care for our children in an increasingly complex media landscape—one that, none the less, can be shaped to offer benefits, hope, joy and inclusion, if we are prepared to consider how that could be achieved. We have lost a generation of children and young people, who are not experiencing the high-quality, uplifting and fulfilling content of past generations. They are now meandering online on paths not beneficial to their mental and social well-being. Once again, I feel that it is my duty to plead with the Government, with tears in my eyes, to put children’s current viewing habits at the forefront of their decision-making process at this late stage, as it is already affecting and will continue to affect their future. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime. I hope that the Minister will commit to this review, and I look forward to his response.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to associate the Green Party with the remarks of both the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. The noble Baroness spoke up very clearly for the people with very little power who are being crushed by those with great power—the oligarchic press and media system, to which I have referred in previous speeches.

To pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I often hear the phrase, “We are a self-governing House” said with great pride. “We are not ruled by the usual channels”—or at least we are not supposed to be. They do not represent large parts of your Lordships’ House.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister and Members from all parts of the House for their good wishes about my health. I went into hospital yesterday morning for a procedure on a long-standing back complaint. It went very well and as I left, the doctor said, “Oh, you might find a bit of discomfort once the painkillers wear off”. Always listen to your doctor. I was really touched to read today’s Hansard. There were good wishes that you usually have to die to get in this House. I feel rather like Tom Sawyer in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is right—I am only going to speak to the amendments to Clause 50—as the notes issued by the House on the wash-up period state:

“The wash-up period allows a Government to enact essential or non-controversial legislation”.


Whatever else this is, Clause 50 is neither of those things. We all know it has been put into the Bill like a sore thumb, to fix a deal between the Conservative Party and the major newspaper proprietors. That is the wicked world in which we live.

Having served in government and in this House for well over 30 years, I cannot get excited about wash-up. George Woodcock, the great trade union leader of the early 1960s, said that good trade unionism is a series of squalid compromises; so is wash-up, I am afraid. I understand what we are doing today. If we did not have this rather crude end to a Parliament, even a general election period of six weeks would be eaten up by both Houses debating Bills. It is not the end of the world; there is another Parliament coming.

I can see that the noble Lord, Lord Black, is in his place. Like Don Quixote, he is ready to charge at the windmills of state control of the press. That has never been any part of Section 40, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, explained in quoting the expert on the situation, Lord Leveson. I was the Minister in the Ministry of Justice who had responsibility for trying to put forward a solution to the problem of how you square the circle of press freedom and the power of big money in the press. I find it ironic that, at the end of this Parliament, we are being asked simultaneously to help the titans of the press to escape the bullying of SLAPPs—that is the use of big money to curb freedom—and at the same time those same press bodies are resisting attempts to give the ordinary citizen the protection from big-money press that they are asking for.

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Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
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No—please let me answer the noble Baroness. The treatment of disabled people is a very contentious issue on which strong views are held, and I am not going to get into that debate. The noble Baroness also complains about my tone. I am sorry she complains about it. What I am seeking to do—I hope very properly, because we are all grown-ups here—is to deal with the substance of the arguments that have been put in favour of these amendments.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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I had misjudged this debate. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Black, would be the Don Quixote—I did not imagine that he would be the Sancho Panza. Has he ever heard of the term used in the United States, “a sweetheart union”? That is what IPSO is. It is owned by, financed by and dependent on the people it is supposed to regulate. We are always looking to get IPSO out of the clutches of those it is supposed to regulate—maybe that will be the greatest tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, during his chairmanship. Then we might believe the silken words that the noble Lord, a very experienced advocate, has been saying to us.

Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
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The noble Lord may recall, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will certainly recall, that Impress, the authorised regulator, was funded for a long time by the late Mr Max Mosley, who had very strong views about press regulation.

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Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD)
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I have not had the chance to say my thanks and I want to thank the Minister. Apart from anything else, his sense of humour throughout this has been really helpful and refreshing. His genuine passion for the DCMS has also really come through. As I said earlier, I wish this could have gone on longer. I suspect we could have got some more concessions through him. I also thank my friends on the Labour Benches and those on the Cross Benches, although they have gone. This has been a very collegiate event. Of course, I thank everyone on my Benches, although they seem not to be here—well, one of them seems to be here, and of course my noble friend Lord Addington.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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Who is this Bruce Springsteen that everybody has been talking about?

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD)
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Yes, there was one little thing I wondered. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, said that he was going to have lunch. For a moment, I thought it was with Bruce Springsteen.

Lord Dunlop Portrait Lord Dunlop (Con)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to support Amendments 16 and 17, introduced persuasively by my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, and, not least, to add another Scots voice to the many Welsh voices that we have heard already.

The independent production sector has naturally been concerned about the implications for Channel 4’s commissioning role of the removal of the existing publisher-broadcaster division. However, following the decision not to proceed with privatisation, providing Channel 4 with the flexibility to make its own content is a logical step that deserves support. As my noble friend made clear, one of the strengths of Channel 4 is its commitment to represent the whole of the UK in all its diversity. It would be a backward step if, in giving Channel 4 greater flexibility, its role as an innovator and investor, stimulating the production sector in all parts of the country, was compromised. We often question whether our news media organisations sufficiently reflect the full diversity of the UK, and the same concern exists for the making of programmes. That is why we ask the BBC to meet quotas for network programming outside England and in each of the home nations.

As we have heard, there is tremendous creative talent outside the M25, including a vibrant sector in Scotland. That is also why some of the biggest global brands commission programmes from independent producers in the nations and regions, as indeed Channel 4 has done historically. However, if in this new world producers in the nations and regions are to remain at the forefront of the minds of Channel 4 commissioners, quotas as proposed by my noble friend are a proven means of providing them with the right incentives without unduly constraining Channel 4’s future room for manoeuvre.

Channel 4, while commercially funded, is a public asset. I believe that quotas are a proportionate measure to reflect its special place in our media landscape. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to work with my noble friend Lady Fraser to provide the reassurance that the independent producers in the nations and regions are seeking.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, one of the great values of Committee stage for Ministers and regulators is that it gives them a warning of trouble ahead if they do not listen to what is said during it. This debate has been a very good example of that. I do not think Parliament is satisfied yet that we have the balance right in the ecology that we are trying to create.

It is interesting to remember that our broadcasting system is a child of Parliament and not of government or regulators. Over the last 100 years, Parliament has tweaked the market to do various good things. It created a national broadcaster under royal charter; most social historians would say that the BBC as created did much to unify the nation—it certainly brought certain accents to the fore, such as those of Wilfred Pickles and JB Priestley, which had not been heard before in London.

We are at a kind of turning point again. Of course, we are going through a revolution, the management of which is perilous for many in the major companies. As has been said in some of the briefings to us from ITV and others, the more we put demands and conditions on public service broadcasters, the more difficult it is for them to compete. It is about getting a balance right between the benefits we get and the benefits we give to PSBs and their ability to compete in this rapidly changing world.

I went to the meeting that the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, organised, and it was very interesting to hear the passionate interventions from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. However, as has also been said today, the development of talent outside London has also been significant. I still think of myself as coming from “Granadaland”; it is very difficult now to realise just what an impact Granada had on the north-west and on its confidence. In a way, there was no great plan, but it was a magnificent piece of genius to create ITV as a federation of regional companies, and from those regional companies came many benefits.

I am not sure how deeply Willie Whitelaw and others thought when they created Channel 4 and gave it that commissioning role, but it has certainly had a massive impact on the creative sector. I want us to make sure—this is the only intervention I make on this—that the Minister accepts the invitation from the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, and that Ofcom, if it is listening, also realises that there is deep concern in Parliament that what comes out of the Bill retains what has been one of the great benefits of our development of the media, which is that we have found, nurtured and developed talents in the regions. The real danger in saying that we are going to concentrate on big productions and so on is that we get the bland and the international, and not what has been the great benefit of the development of our television and our broadcasting—the talent and the voice of the regions.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, this debate has been a fascinating example of how the nations and regions are well represented in the Committee. We have heard contributions from Wales, Scotland, Newcastle and across the country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, argued very persuasively that quotas work. These amendments are aimed in a targeted and precise way at the hours and expenditure on programmes broadcast that are made and produced outside London. Amendment 17 additionally reflects this by reference to

“the nations of the United Kingdom”.

Amendment 54, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, seeks to ensure that there is a proper evaluation of companies that claim to operate in the nations of the UK by reference to criteria based on staff numbers, a published commitment to remain and a background of time spent in that nation.

We on these Benches have a great deal of sympathy and offer our encouragement and support to the principle behind these amendments. The last 20 or so years have seen, as we touched on in earlier debates, the growth of production outside London. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us, regional production was a great strength of the federated ITV companies. Their big opportunity in the late 1950s and 1960s led to such great companies as Granada Television and Harlech Television. Surely the latter is the only time that a Lord has given his name to a TV company, but the grandfather of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech—who is in his place—was clearly a pioneer. Independent production companies now work from all over the country; although some of them are suffering the difficulties that have developed from the direction of travel for advertising revenue, that is one of the great strengths of our media landscape.

The Government have chosen to change the way in which the provider of a licensed public service channel delivers its regional production quotas. The key question for the Committee and the Government to consider is whether the percentages set out in the amendment are the right ones for Ofcom to work to and how best to ensure that the necessary flexibility is retained within the quota system. We see regional production in the context of reflecting the diversity of the nations that make up the UK—diversity in a wider sense—and the need to reflect better our rich regional cultural diaspora, which a number of noble Lords have made wonderful reference to this afternoon.

It is also important to ensure that we recognise the value that TV production can bring in levelling-up. Why should TV production be concentrated in the wealthier parts of the UK and overconcentrated in the south-east and London? There are big disparities in regional wealth in this country—some of the biggest, largest and most extensive across Europe—and TV can do much to address that. To their credit, the PSBs have all made attempts in the last decade or so to decentralise production and bring about a transformed media landscape—Channel 4 in Leeds and Glasgow, the BBC with its MediaCityUK, and ITV devolving some of its production and major locations. As legislators, surely our role is to strengthen and enhance this. For that reason and others, these amendments are very welcome. I hope that the Minister responds positively to the spirit of these amendments.

On the issue of regional TV and its importance to production, has the Minister given any thought to the future of the 34 hyperlocal TV services licensed by Ofcom? These small operators were enabled by Labour’s Communications Act 2003, but they are not included in the definition of public service channels. These small channels do an important job in local news production at a time when, as we all know, local news is diminishing. Collectively, their reach is considerable, with over half a million viewers. Is this omission an oversight by the Government? If it is, would the Minister agree to meet and discuss this with representatives of the local TV companies to see what can be done to reinstate their public service broadcasting designation? I appreciate that this is not an amendment before us this afternoon, as no such amendment has been tabled, but debates on the Bill might be the opportunity to give a little sunshine to local TV companies and for the Government to put that on record.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a freelance television producer who works for small independent production companies making content for public service broadcasters. I am also an officer of the Channel 4 APPG, so I speak as a critical friend to the channel. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for putting his name to this amendment. I also thank the many small independent companies to whom I have spoken, as well as Tom Chivers from the Media Reform Coalition, and Channel 4 itself.

I put down Amendments 14 and 15 to Clause 8 because I want to ensure that Channel 4 focuses its commissioning on future support for the SMEs. I hope the amendments will encourage the channel to expand its present commissioning process, which too often rewards large suppliers with large commissions. There will be much argument about the level of the cap below which companies qualify as SMEs. However, subsections (1B) and (1C) of this amendment give the Secretary of State the power to be flexible and alter the threshold figure if it proves to be too low for small drama producers, for instance, but only after she has consulted Ofcom, Channel 4 and independent companies.

Amendment 15 requires the criteria to be extended to an annual revenue of £25 million a year over five years. This would mean that a single large drama commission would not adversely affect a company’s status as an SME by pushing its annual revenue in a single year over the £25 million mark. The information on the company’s revenue will not be hard to find; it will be readily accessible in Companies House.

Channel 4 was set up in 1982 by Mrs Thatcher’s Government in order to break the duopoly of BBC and ITV. Its purpose was to disrupt the television ecosystem, which it did wonderfully well. Its aim was not just to have content different from the existing public service broadcasters and to reach new audiences, but to allow a thousand flowers to bloom. As Mrs Thatcher’s deputy, Willie Whitelaw, said:

“We must aim for a channel that says something new in new ways”.


He added:

“We must seek to provide an outlet for the talent of independent producers”.


Channel 4 has been very successful in encouraging thousands of people across the television industry to leave their comfortable staff jobs in the other public service broadcasters and take the risk of setting up small, independent television production companies. It created a culture in the media where independent producers became risk takers and small business owners, supplying a channel which aimed to reach minorities and poorly served audiences.

For much of the last few decades, Channel 4 has been at the centre of nurturing Britain’s independent television sector, which is the engine of our world-beating creative economy, the seed corn of the industry. But the media environment has changed dramatically in the last few years, both in content commissioning and in the supply side of the industry. Hundreds of small companies, which make up the lifeblood of the industry, have been bought up by mega television production companies such as Banijay and All3Media, which is owned by the American company Warner Brothers.

It is not surprising that these big companies have been so successful. In 2022, over three-quarters of Channel 4’s UK commissioning spend went to production companies with turnovers in excess of £25 million per year, while just 21% went to producers with annual revenues of under £25 million per year, despite these smaller companies making up more than half of all independent production companies in the UK.

Unfortunately, the latest figures, from 2022, show the percentage of Channel 4’s spend on commissioning from those bigger companies to have increased from 64% in 2020 to over three-quarters two years later, while the figures for the under £25 million companies have gone down from 36% in 2020 to 26% in 2022. This has happened at a time when Channel 5—which is privately owned—commissioned an amazing 81% of those smaller companies, a figure which has gone up even further in 2022.

This is contributing to the crisis in the industry, with commissions to smaller indies, and regions, collapsing. The latest BECTU survey of its members estimates that nearly three-quarters of its members are not working. Some 30% have not worked in the past three months, while 34% have had less than a month’s work since November 2023. As a result, there is a dramatic exodus from the industry, which has been one of the beacons of our economy. In February 2024, 37% of the respondents to the BECTU survey said that they were planning to leave the industry, with 40% of women and half of black respondents saying that they were going to look for work outside the sector within five years.

The money to build these small companies comes from the terms of trade, set up to ensure that they get the majority share of the back-end revenue from further sales of these programmes. This comes only from commissions by British broadcasters. US companies pay a straight production fee and keep all the back-end profit, so the Bill needs to focus on ensuring that British broadcasters support the future of up-and-coming content suppliers across the UK. The BBC is carrying much of the burden, but I and many other colleagues have fought hard to ensure that Channel 4 remains in public ownership. That mission having succeeded, the emphasis must be to encourage the broadcaster to support the next generation—the seed corn of television production.

I fear that Channel 4’s attitude can be summed up in its submission to Ofcom when renewing its 2024 licence, in which it said that

“the UK production sector continues to be significantly smaller outside London”,

with

“fewer production companies, often smaller in scale, and therefore with less capacity to develop creative ideas and produce them”.

This statement also relates to Amendments 16 and 17 in the next group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, which will support quotas for commissioning in the regions and nations.

I have been talking to small indies across the country and have been told horrendous stories of the Channel 4 commissioning process—or lack of it. One told me of a series being cancelled just three weeks before filming was due to start. Others had the extreme difficulty of getting programme ideas through the channel’s commissioning process.

I want to balance my statements by pointing out that Channel 4 is capable of commissioning astonishing programmes from small production companies, such as “The Push”, from a small Leeds-based company, Candour, which had good ratings, and told an important story from a diverse community, but there are not nearly enough of these. The channel did point out to me that its emerging indie fund has invested £17 million over the last four years, to identify and nurture emerging talent and to help them grow their businesses. The fund also provides guidance to selected indies about the Channel 4 commissioning process, to provide them with the skill set to pitch for further work. This help must, of course, be welcome, but it is not revenue from commissions.

This great channel, which is still one of the jewels of public service broadcasting, is battling against the headwinds of a fiercely competitive television economy. As it is a publicly owned company, I call on the Government to push it further in supporting SMEs and to help to bolster the future of our creative industries. Channel 4’s slogan is “4 All the UK”, and I ask the Minister at least to look at Amendments 14 and 15, to ensure that this publicly owned channel does just that.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, I point out that I did not speak at Second Reading. I was here until 6 pm and then went off to speak at a long-standing engagement at Queen Mary University of London.

It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. I put my name to Amendment 14 because I strongly support his campaign, as he has explained it, to make sure that we do not get stampeded or bamboozled into policies because the world is changing, globalising and internationalising and we therefore think that certain things are inevitable. One of the things that we enjoy in the British broadcasting environment is that, for 100 years, we have been bucking the market. It was a Conservative Government that created the BBC as a public corporation safeguarded by a royal charter. It was a Conservative Government that introduced ITV as a confederation of regional television companies. Even today, ITV retains some of the DNA of that regional network; I still consider myself as coming from “Granada land”, and you can still find some of that company’s ethos in ITV today. As was pointed out, it was a Conservative Government, under Mrs Thatcher, that created Channel 4. Let us not be bullied; we have a good record of making television that is national—in the broadest sense—and distinctly British and that sets standards for others around the world.

Unfortunately, I cannot stay for the debate on the next group, but I crept into the meeting that was held on it. I felt like a Sassenach in the gathering of Scots and Welsh and Northern Irish people, putting the point, which has been proved time and again with a little nudging by government, that there is talent out there in the regions. But if you leave it just to the market, you have to make some effort to get results, because London is such a massive black hole of energy.

I am sometimes teased by my colleagues when I refer to the fact that I was on the Puttnam committee that gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the 2003 Act. One of the great advantages of the House of Lords is having that kind of perspective. When I look at that, I see that it was amazing that we got so many things right when we were not just looking through a glass darkly at what was happening. There was no internet and none of the technologies that have been developed in the last 20 years. In that Act, there were still various safeguards for making sure that our broadcasting ecology retained a British stamp to it—a British DNA—and that is why I support this amendment now.

I do not think that the idea for Channel 4 was to create a whole new industry of successful British indies, but that is what it did. It was perhaps too successful, in that many of those indies, as was referred to, were then swallowed up by other companies or themselves became big—not little—minnows.

However, that is the great effort: if we can keep this diversification of commissioning in Channel 4, and in the other countries and the regions, we are distorting the market to a certain extent but beneficially, by forcing it to find the talent in the regions and in the smaller companies. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, in his intervention earlier referred to the crude market forces “squeezing out” those opportunities. I therefore hope that Channel 4 will think again.

Telegraph Media Group Ltd: Acquisition

Lord McNally Excerpts
Wednesday 1st May 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, we on the Labour Benches are grateful today to the Government for this short Statement, setting out where they are on the future acquisition of the Telegraph Media Group. As the House knows, we have been steadfast in our support for a free and independent press across the political spectrum. We will always champion the right of a free press to hold power to account, speak hard truths and expose corruption and wrongdoing.

We oppose foreign powers owning our free press, which has been consistently raised by parliamentarians across all Benches both here and in another place. We also welcome investment into the UK, in particular in news media businesses. For that reason this Statement is important, as it sets out how the Secretary of State intends to use her powers. It is our expectation that the Secretary of State will use these powers wisely to protect the diversity of our media landscape and encourage inward investment. The Government can be assured that we will follow the auction process closely.

I have a few questions today for the Minister. First, can he say a little more about the timescale for the auction? Can he assure the House that the Telegraph Media Group will at all times keep its workforce and unions informed? I noted from the Secretary of State’s Statement that the order governing this process not only prevents actions that might prejudice a phase 2 reference to the CMA; it also effectively freezes organisational and staff changes. To us, it would seem that union consultation is a small move on from that step, so have Ministers had any discussions with the relevant trade unions representing Telegraph Media Group staff? Can the Minister also tell the House what principles will underpin the approach to the auction and what steps the Secretary of State will take to guarantee that there is a free and open sale of the media group?

This is a year of multiple elections: we have local elections tomorrow and a general election, we hope, as soon as possible afterwards. It is essential to our working democracy that we have a free, honest and independent press. For our part, although we may not always agree with the editorial line of the Telegraph, we will champion its right—and the right of all publications—to hold us all to account.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, I had always imagined that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was a Telegraph reader.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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It is the cricket I like.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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Yes, the cricket.

We welcome this Statement. Sometimes I am teased by my colleagues about my membership of the Puttnam committee on the Communications Act 2003, but actually the Puttnam amendment to that Act is the origin of the powers that the Secretary of State has used here. The Puttnam amendment widened the reasons for Secretary of State interventions and has been used very usefully at key times in the last 20 years. In terms of these bids for purchase of our media, it means that we are able to take in the wider public interest and we support the Secretary of State in so doing.

I am not naturally a supporter of RedBird IMI, but I have some sympathy for the question of whether it is fair to either would-be bidders or the wider public interest to be so behind the curve and reactive when such bids arise. Media ownership is becoming more interlocking and intertwined between print, broadcasting and online. In many ways, although they might not like it, print journalists are becoming almost like the hand-loom weavers in the world of fast-moving technological change—and that is before we feel the full impact of artificial intelligence on the sector.

I would like to probe the Minister. Yesterday, Sir John Whittingdale in the other place pointed out that

“it is six years since Ofcom said that there needs to be fundamental review of our media merger regime”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/4/24; col. 165.]

I agree with him, and I ask the Minister whether the Government are actively considering such a review.

With the Media Bill now before this House, will the Government seek cross-party agreement on clarifying and strengthening our media ownership rules for the future? I see the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, is in her place. She has already put down an amendment to the Media Bill which could take this forward, but I think it could be done much more comprehensively at this time. If we do not do it comprehensively at this time, we will find that we have another 20 years of drift and that we are behind the game. It is essential that we have in place protection from foreign influences and state players, while, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, emphasised, seeing sustained plurality in both ownership and opinion in a free press—as all sides of the House want.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I should reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, that the Government do not always agree with the editorial line of the Telegraph either, but that is the point. The independence of the press, holding Governments of all colours to account, is why the Secretary of State has always taken this so seriously and used the powers available to her under the Enterprise Act in the way that she has. It is why, as I outlined in debates on the digital markets Bill, we have acted to put beyond doubt and make explicit the ability for her to act in this scenario following the concerns raised, not least by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, about the potential influence of foreign Governments over our newspapers.

I am grateful to both noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord McNally, for their comments and their welcome of the Statement. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for recalling rightly the role that Lord Puttnam played in the legislative landscape, which the Secretary of State and her predecessors have been able to use in this important area.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred to the balance between taking action to preserve the freedom of press, which we hold dear as a cornerstone of our democracy, and attracting investment into the UK. We have always been clear, as have my noble friend Lady Stowell and others, that our actions in relation to the potential influence of foreign Governments are not prejudicial to our welcoming of foreign investment more generally in media businesses, and I am glad to have the opportunity to say that again.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, asked about consultation with trade unions. The Government will not be engaging with potential buyers or be involved in the sale process from this stage on. We have obviously been careful in the stages so far. From now on, it will be run by RedBird IMI alone. The Secretary of State made her decision based on the evidence provided by Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority, which issued a call for evidence and spoke to relevant parties. The unions could have made representations to both those bodies—whether they did or not, I do not know, but that is the appropriate way for views to be fed in. The noble Lord is right to refer to the people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on this. Some of them, who have jobs that allow them to write freely, have made those points, but there are many more people whose jobs in these important sectors are affected by it, which I am happy to acknowledge.

On timelines, RedBird IMI will now proceed with a sale of the call option. The details of that are not finalised, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the next steps as they are a commercial matter. I will say, as the Secretary of State has, that she will monitor the outcome with a view to deciding in due course if she should take any further regulatory action under the Enterprise Act.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked about our consideration of the media mergers regime more broadly. That work was already under way before this issue came to a head. We have taken the action that we have in the digital markets Bill. That action continues, and we will have more to say on that, not least during our debates on the Media Bill. I know that he and others will rightly use this as an opportunity to return to these matters.

News Broadcasting: Regulation

Lord McNally Excerpts
Thursday 14th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the regulation of news broadcasting companies.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, one of the most satisfying experiences during my time in the Lords was to serve, in 2002, on the joint pre-legislative scrutiny committee prior to the 2003 Communications Act, chaired by the now retired and much missed Lord Puttnam. One lesson which came from that experience is that communications Bills do not come along that often, so it is important that we get things right, because correcting a mistake is not always that easy.

The 2003 Act created Ofcom as the regulator of the broadcast media. I remember at the time some people said that Murdoch’s lawyers would have Ofcom for breakfast. They did not and, in the main, Ofcom has proved an effective regulator, although, as I will explain later, I have some real concerns about how Ofcom has recently interpreted the mandate given it by Parliament.

We are about to give Ofcom some widespread discretionary powers. In doing so, it is important that the marching orders Parliament gives are clear and precise. For example, Ofcom must understand that for 100 years, under successive Administrations, Parliament has intentionally distorted the market to ensure that we have quality and choice in our broadcasting ecology.

Initially, that was done by putting broadcasting in the hands of a public corporation, protected by royal charter and guided by Lord Reith’s original mission statement to inform, educate and entertain. Since its early days, the BBC has set the gold standard for impartiality and accuracy.

Parliament made it clear, when plans were being drawn up for commercial channels in the early 1950s, that it expected exactly the same standard from the BBC’s new competitors, not least in their provision of news. So, when ITV opened its doors in 1955 and then Channel 4 followed in 1982, they were subject to exactly the same regime as the publicly funded BBC. As a result, ITN has gone toe-to-toe with the BBC in the quality and range of its reporting.

Then, in 1989, along came Rupert Murdoch with his satellite TV stations, including Sky News, beamed directly into our homes, and we wondered how long it would be before Britain had its own version of an opinionated news channels. We need not have worried; our rules on impartiality and accuracy, robustly overseen by the Independent Television Commission from 1990, made sure that Sky News was insulated from undue ownership pressures and continued the legacy of high-quality, independent television news that continues to this day under its new ownership. In perhaps the greatest tribute to the strength of our regulatory system, Murdoch once described Sky News as “BBC lite”—I do not think he meant it as a compliment.

When the broadcasting regime was overhauled in 2003, Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act cemented our commitment to impartiality in broadcasting by placing a statutory obligation on the regulator to ensure that due impartiality is preserved when dealing with

“matters of political or industrial controversy; and … matters relating to current public policy”.

Ofcom interprets its statutory duty through its Broadcasting Code. The code is clear that:

“Views and facts must not be misrepresented”.


Ofcom rightly affords licensees some flexibility by emphasising the notion of “due impartiality”, which allows for some discretion. It is on that basis that it has been able to license news channels with different perspectives from outside the UK. It is equally clear that one newcomer, GB News, has been testing to the limit how far it can go in ignoring impartiality rules by its choice of presenters and lines of questioning. These have been dealt with by Ofcom, at best by a tap on the wrist, often after a lengthy time of procrastination. Even more worrying are the decisions that conclude that there has been no code breach, or that complaints are not even being pursued.

We had some insight recently into Ofcom’s thinking from its chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes. When interviewed at an Oxford conference recently, she said that the BBC, ITV and Sky News should be “held to a higher standard” than channels with smaller audiences, such as GB News. This is a doctrine far from what Parliament has asked Ofcom to do. It opens the way for a weakening and undermining of standards for which there is no parliamentary authority, and it leads us down an already well-trodden path. In the United States there is no impartiality governance framework round the media. The abolition of the fairness doctrine in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan paved the way for the fractured and polarised media environment we see today in the USA.

Of course, the technological and communications revolution through which we are passing is going to involve great changes to what we watch and how we watch it, but we should not be bamboozled into throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We must retain a strong, resilient, well-funded BBC as the iron pole around which we maintain the highest standards in delivering the information on which an informed democracy can make its decisions.

We know from repeated surveys that UK viewers and listeners have trust in news and information provided by our public service broadcasters. In an era of social media disinformation and misinformation, where citizens in a democracy need to have confidence in the information they are receiving, this is more important than ever. If the Conservatives have plans to water down regulations governing broadcasting standards, they should put that in a manifesto and fight a general election on the matter.

Because of restrictions on time, I refer the Minister to the article in the Guardian by two very experienced former Ofcom executives, Stewart Purvis and Chris Banatvala, who set out in very clear detail the dangers, particularly in a general election year, of Ofcom being able to change its remit by the back door.

Our broadcast journalism is not only trusted but underpins the values of our liberal democracy. They are the values that the BBC World Service delivers to the wider world, often with great individual courage, adding greatly to our reputation and soft power. Some say that the tsunami of information now available through digital and social media means that impartiality rules for broadcasting and the trust they instil in the public are no longer necessary. I say they have never been more important, and I hope the Minister will say so today.

Online Safety Bill

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Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, this has been a very interesting short debate. Like other noble Lords, I am very pleased that the Government have proposed the new clauses in Amendments 274B and 274C. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, described absolutely the importance of media literacy, particularly for disabled people and for the vulnerable. This is really important for them. It is important also not to fall into the trap described by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, of saying, “You are a child or a vulnerable person. You must acquire media literacy—it’s your obligation; it’s not the obligation of the platforms to design their services appropriately”. I take that point, but it does not mean that media literacy is not extraordinarily important.

However, sadly, I do not believe that the breadth of the Government’s new media literacy amendments is as wide as the original draft Bill. If you look back at the draft Bill, that was a completely new and upgraded set of duties right across the board, replacing Section 11 of the Communications Act and, in a sense, fit for the modern age. The Government have made a media literacy duty which is much narrower. It relates only to regulated services. This is not optimum. We need something broader which puts a bigger and broader duty for the future on to Ofcom.

It is also deficient in two respects. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, will speak to his amendments, but it struck me immediately when looking at that proposed new clause that we were missing all the debate about functionalities and so on that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, debated the other day, regarding design, and that we must ensure that media literacy encompasses understanding the underlying functionalities and systems of the platforms that we are talking about.

I know that your Lordships will be very excited to hear that I am going to refer again to the Joint Committee. I know that the Minister has read us from cover to cover, but at paragraph 381 on the draft Bill we said, and it is still evergreen:

“If the Government wishes to improve the UK’s media literacy to reduce online harms, there must be provisions in the Bill to ensure media literacy initiatives are of a high standard. The Bill should empower Ofcom to set minimum standards for media literacy initiatives that both guide providers and ensure the information they are disseminating aligns with the goal of reducing online harm”.


I had a very close look at the clause. I could not see that Ofcom is entitled to set minimum standards. The media literacy provisions sadly are deficient in that respect.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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I am not surprised that my noble friend refers to his experience on the Joint Committee. He will not be surprised that I am about to refer to my experience on the Puttnam committee in 2003, which recommended media literacy as a priority for Ofcom. The sad fact is that media literacy was put on the back burner by Ofcom for almost 20 years. While I listen to this House, I think that my noble friend is quite right to accuse the Government, hard as the Minister has tried, of a paucity of ambition and—more than that—of letting us slip into the same mistake made by Ofcom after 2003 and allowing this to be a narrow, marginal issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has reminded us time and again that unless we educate those who are using these technologies, these abuses will proliferate.

Therefore, with what my noble friend is advocating and what we will keep an eye on as the Bill is implemented—and I now literally speak over the Minister’s head, to the Member behind—Ofcom must take media literacy seriously and be a driving force in its implementation, for the very reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, referred to. We do not want everybody protected by regulations and powers—we want people protected by their own knowledge of what they are dealing with. This is where there is a gap between what has been pressed on the Government and what they are offering.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for that intervention.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their comments, and for the recognition from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, of the changes that we have made. I am particularly grateful to him for having raised media literacy throughout our scrutiny of this Bill.

His Amendments 269C and 269D seek to set a date by which the establishment of the advisory committee on misinformation and disinformation must take place and to set requirements for its first report. Ofcom recognises the valuable role that the committee will play in providing advice in relation to its duties on misinformation and disinformation, and has assured us that it will aim to establish the committee as soon as is reasonably possible, in recognition of the threats posed by misinformation and disinformation online.

Given the valuable role of the advisory committee, Ofcom has stressed how crucial it will be to have appropriate time to appoint the best possible committee. Seeking to prescribe a timeframe for its implementation risks impeding Ofcom’s ability to run the thorough and transparent recruitment process that I am sure all noble Lords want and to appoint the most appropriate and expert members. It would also not be appropriate for the Bill to be overly prescriptive on the role of the committee, including with regard to its first report, in order for it to maintain the requisite independence and flexibility to give us the advice that we want.

Amendment 269AA from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, seeks to add advice on content provenance to the duties of the advisory committee. The new media literacy amendments, which update Ofcom’s media literacy duties, already include a requirement for Ofcom to take steps to help users establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of content found on regulated services. Ofcom will have duties and mechanisms to be able to advise platforms on how they can help users to understand whether content is authentic; for example, by promoting tools that assist them to establish the provenance of content, where appropriate. The new media literacy duties will require Ofcom to take tangible steps to prioritise the public’s awareness of and resilience to misinformation and disinformation online. That may include enabling users to establish the reliability, accuracy and authenticity of content, but the new duties will not remove content online; I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on that.

The advisory committee is already required under Clause 141(4)(c) to advise Ofcom on its exercise of its media literacy functions, including its new duties relating to content authenticity. The Bill does not stipulate what tools service providers should use to fulfil their duties, but Ofcom will have the ability to recommend in its codes of practice that companies use tools such as provenance technologies to identify manipulated media which constitute illegal content or content that is harmful to children, where appropriate. Ofcom is also required to take steps to encourage the development and use of technologies that provide users with further context about content that they encounter online. That could include technologies that support users to establish content provenance. I am happy to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the advisory committee will already be required to advise on the issues that he has raised in his amendment.

On media literacy more broadly, Ofcom retains its overall statutory duty to promote media literacy, which remains broad and non-prescriptive. The new duties in this Bill, however, are focused specifically on harm; that is because the of nature of the Bill, which seeks to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online and is necessarily focused on tackling harms. To ensure that Ofcom succeeds in the delivery of these new specific duties with regard to regulated services, it is necessary that the regulator has a clearly defined scope. Broadening the duties would risk overburdening Ofcom by making its priorities less clear.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull—who has been translated to the Woolsack while we have been debating this group—raised media literacy for more vulnerable users. Under Ofcom’s existing media literacy programme, it is already delivering initiatives to support a range of users, including those who are more vulnerable online, such as people with special educational needs and people with disabilities. I am happy to reassure her that, in delivering this work, Ofcom is already working not just with expert groups including Mencap but with people with direct personal experiences of living with disabilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised Ofsted. Effective regulatory co-ordination is essential for addressing the crosscutting opportunities and challenges posed by digital technologies and services. Ofsted will continue to engage with Ofcom through its existing mechanisms, including engagement led by its independent policy team and those held with Ofcom’s online safety policy director. In addition to that, Ofsted is considering mechanisms through which it can work more closely with Ofcom where appropriate. These include sharing insights from inspections in an anonymised form, which could entail reviews of its inspection bases and focus groups with inspectors, on areas of particular concern to Ofcom. Ofsted is committed to working with Ofcom’s policy teams to work these plans up in more detail.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, could I ask the Minister a question? He has put his finger on one of the most important aspects of this Bill: how it will integrate with the Department for Education and all its responsibilities for schools. Again, talking from long experience, one of the worries is the silo mentality in Whitehall, which is quite often strongest in the Department for Education. Some real effort will be needed to make sure there is a crossover from the powers that Ofcom has to what happens in the classroom.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I hope what I have said about the way that Ofsted and Ofcom are working together gives the noble Lord some reassurance. He is right, and it is not just in relation to the Department for Education. In my own department, we have discussed in previous debates on media literacy the importance of critical thinking, equipping people with the sceptical, quizzical, analytic skills they need—which art, history and English literature do as well. The provisions in this Bill focus on reducing harm because the Bill is focused on making the UK the safest place to be online, but he is right that media literacy work more broadly touches on a number of government departments.

Amendment 274BA would require Ofcom to promote an understanding of how regulated services’ business models operate, how they use personal data and the operation of their algorithmic systems and processes. We believe that Ofcom’s existing duty under the Communications Act already ensures that the regulator can cover these aspects in its media literacy activities. The duty requires Ofcom to build public awareness of the processes by which material on regulated services is selected or made available. This enables Ofcom to address the platform features specified in this amendment.

The Government’s amendments include extensive new objectives for Ofcom, which apply to harmful ways in which a service is used as well as harmful content. We believe it important not to add further to this duty when the outcomes can already be achieved through the existing duty. We do not wish to limit, by implication, Ofcom’s media literacy duties in relation to other, non-regulated services.

We also judge that the noble Lord’s amendment carries a risk of confusing the remits of Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office. UK data protection law already confers a right for people to be informed about how their personal data are being used, making this aspect of the amendment superfluous.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, my name is also to this amendment. I am moved by a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on Monday; he said the passage of this Bill has been a “series of conversations”. So it has been. The way the Minister has engaged with the House on many of the concerns that the Bill tries to cover has been greatly to his credit.

It is somewhat unknown how much the new technologies will impact on our democracy, our privacy and the safety of our children, although they have all been discussed with great thoroughness. That is why the opt-out for recognised news publishers is something of a puzzle, unless you assume that the Government have caved in to pressure from that sector. Why should it be given this opt-out? It is partly because if you ask the press to take responsibility in any way, it becomes like Violet Elizabeth Bott in the Just William stories; it “thkweems and thkweems”—usually led by the noble Lord, Lord Black, whom I am glad to see in his place —and talks about press freedom.

My skin in this game is that I was the Minister in the Lords when the Leveson inquiry was under way and when we took action to try to implement its findings. It is interesting that at that point there was cross-party agreement in both Houses on how to implement them. I advise anybody intending to go into coalitions in future not to take the Conservative Party’s assurances on such matters totally at face value, as that cross-party agreement to implement Leveson was reneged on by the Conservative Party under pressure from the main newspaper publishers.

It was a tragedy, because the “series of conversations” that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to will be ongoing. We will not let the press off the hook, no matter how much it wields its power. It is just over 90 years since Stanley Baldwin’s famous accusation of

“power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It is just over 30 years since David Mellor warned the press that it was in the “last chance saloon” and just over 10 years since Rupert Murdoch said that appearing before the Leveson inquiry, with a curious choice of language, was

“the most humble day of my life”.

Of course, like water off a duck’s back, once the pressure was off and the deal had been done with the Conservative Party, we could carry on on our own merry way.

It was a tragedy too because the Leveson settlement—as I think the PRP and Impress have proved—works perfectly well. It is neither state controlled nor an imposition on a free press. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I greatly resent the idea that this is somehow an attempt to impose on a free press. It is an attempt to get the press to help the whole of our democracy and make things work properly, just as this Bill attempts to do.

Someone mentioned Rupert Murdoch’s recent summer party. The Prime Minister was not the only one who went—so did the leader of the Opposition. I like to think that Mr Attlee would not have gone. I am not sure that my old boss, Jim Callaghan, would have gone. I do not think that either would have flown half way around the world, as Tony Blair did, to treat with him. The truth is that, over the last decade or so, in some ways the situation has got worse. Politicians are more cowed by the press. When I was a Minister and we proposed some reasonably modest piece of radical change, I was told by my Conservative colleague, “We’ll not get that through; the Daily Mail won’t tolerate it”. That pressure on politics means we need politicians with the guts to resist it.

Those who want a genuinely free press would not leave this festering wound. I will not join in the attack on the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, because we worked together very well in coalition. I would prefer to see IPSO reform itself to become Leveson-compliant. That would not bring any of the dangers that we will hear about from the noble Lord, Lord Black, but it would give us a system of press regulation that we could all agree with.

On Section 40, I remember well the discussions about how we would give some incentive to join. A number of my colleagues feel uncomfortable about Section 40 making even the winners pay, but the winner pays only if they are not within a Leveson-compliant system. That was, perhaps innocently, thought of as a carrot to bring the press in, though, of course, it does not read easily. Frankly, if Section 40 were to go but IPSO became Leveson-compliant, that would be a fair deal.

This Bill leaves us with some very dangerous loopholes. Some of the comments underneath in the press and, as the Minister referred to, the newsclips that can be added can be extremely dangerous if children are exposed to them.

There are many other loopholes that this genuflection to press power is going to leave in the Bill and which will lead to problems in the future. Rather than launch another attack—because you can be sure another case will come along or another outrage will happen, and perhaps this time, Parliament will have the guts to deal with it—it would be far better if the media itself saw Leveson for what it was: a masterful, genuine attempt to put a free press within the context of a free society and protect the individuals and institutions in that society in a way that is in all our interests. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, we are not pushing this tonight, but we are not going to go away.

Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, I have been a journalist my whole career and I have great respect for the noble Lords who put their names to Amendments 159 and 160. However, I cannot support another attempt to lever Section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act into the Bill. In Committee I put my name to Amendment 51, which aims to protect journalism in the public interest. It is crucial to support our news outlets, in the interests of democracy and openness. We are in a world where only a few newspapers, such as the New York Times, manage to make a profit from their digital subscribers. I welcome the protection provided by Clause 50; it is much needed.

In the past decade, the declining state of local journalism has meant there is little coverage of magistrates’ courts and council proceedings, the result being that local public servants are no longer held to account. At a national level, newspapers are more and more reluctant to put money into investigations unless they are certain of an outcome, which is rarely the case. Meanwhile, the tech platforms are using newspapers’ contents for free or paying them little money, while disaggregating news content on their websites so the readers do not even know its provenance. I fear that the digital era is putting our legacy media, which has long been a proud centrepiece of our democracy, in great danger. The inclusion of these amendments would mean that all national newspapers and most local media would be excluded from the protections of the clause. The Bill, which is about regulating the digital world, should not be about trying to limit the number of newspapers and news websites covered by the protections of Clause 50; it would threaten democracy at a local and national level.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Our right honourable friend’s content was reuploaded. This makes the point that the problem at the moment is the opacity of these terms and conditions; what platforms say they do and what they do does not always align. The Bill makes sure that users can hold them to account for the terms of service that they publish, so that people can know what to expect on platforms and have some form of redress when their experience does not match their expectations.

I was coming on to say a bit more about that after making some points about foreign jurisdictions and my noble friend’s Amendment 155. As I say, parts or versions of the service that are used in foreign jurisdictions but not in the UK are not covered by the duties in Clause 65. As such, the Bill does not require a provider to have systems and processes designed to enforce any terms of service not applicable in the UK.

In addition, the duties do not give powers to Ofcom to enforce a provider’s terms of service directly. Ofcom’s role will be focused on ensuring that platforms have systems and processes in place to enforce their own terms of service consistently rather than assessing individual pieces of content.

Requiring providers to set terms of service for specific types of content suggests that the Government view that type of content as harmful or risky. That would encourage providers to prohibit such content, which of course would have a negative impact on freedom of expression, which I am sure is not what my noble friend wants to see. Freedom of expression is essential to a democratic society. Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government have always committed to ensuring that people can speak freely online. We are not in the business of indirectly telling companies what legal content they can and cannot allow online. Instead, the approach that we have taken will ensure that platforms are transparent and accountable to their users about what they will and will not allow on their services.

Clause 65 recognises that companies, as private entities, have the right to remove content that is legal from their services if they choose to do so. To prevent them doing so, by requiring them to balance this against other priorities, would have perverse consequences for their freedom of action and expression. It is right that people should know what to expect on platforms and that they are able to hold platforms to account when that does not happen. On that basis, I invite the noble Lords who have amendments in this group not to press them.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, in his opening remarks, the Minister referred to the fact that this debate began last Tuesday. Well, it did, in that I made a 10-minute opening speech and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, rather elegantly hopped out of this group of amendments; perhaps she saw what was coming.

How that made me feel is perhaps best summed up by what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said earlier when he was justifying the business for tomorrow. He said that adjournments were never satisfactory. In that spirit, I wrote to the Leader of the House, expressing the grumbles I made in my opening remarks. He has written back in a very constructive and thoughtful way. I will not delay the Committee any longer, other than to say that I hope the Leader of the House would agree to make his reply available for other Members to read. It says some interesting things about how we manage business. It sounds like a small matter but if what happened on Tuesday had happened in other circumstances in the other place, business would probably have been delayed for at least an hour while the usual suspects picked holes in it. If the usual channels would look at this, we could avoid some car crashes in future.

I am pleased that this group of amendments has elicited such an interesting debate, with fire coming from all sides. In introducing the debate, I said that probably the only real advice I could give the Committee came from my experience of being on the pre-legislative scrutiny committee in 2003. That showed just how little we were prepared for the tsunami of new technology that was about to engulf us. My one pleasure was that we were part of forming Ofcom. I am pleased that the chairman of Ofcom, the noble Lord, Lord Grade, has assiduously sat through our debates. I suspect he is thinking that he had better hire some more lawyers.

We are trying to get this right. I have no doubt that all sides of the House want to get this legislation through in good shape and for it to play an important role. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Grade, never imagined that he would become a state regulator in the kind of ominous way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said it. Ofcom has done a good job and will do so in future.

There is a problem of getting definitions right. When I was at the Ministry of Justice, I once had to entertain a very distinguished American lawyer. As I usually did, I explained that I was not a lawyer. He looked at me and said, “Then I will speak very slowly”. There is a danger, particularly in this part of the Bill, of wandering into a kind of lawyer-fest. It is important that we are precise about what powers we are giving to whom. Just to chill the Minister’s soul, I remember being warned as well about Pepper v Hart. What he says at the Dispatch Box will be used to interpret what Parliament meant when it gave this or that power.

The debate we have had thus far has been fully justified in sending a few warning signals to the Minister that it is perhaps not quite right yet. It needs further work. There is a lot of good will on all sides of the House to get it right. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 33B withdrawn.
Moved by
33B: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Adult risk assessment duties
(1) This section sets out the duties about adult risk assessments which apply in relation to all Category 1 services.(2) A duty to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk of an adult user encountering by means of the service content which is harmful to adults taking into account any relevant risk profile and to keep that assessment up to date, including when OFCOM make any significant change to a risk profile that relates to services of the kind in question, or before making any significant change to any aspect of a service’s design or operation including changes to any user empowerment tools.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires Category 1 services to assess the risk of harm to adults arising from the operation of their services.
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, as a former Deputy Leader of this House, if I were sitting on the Front Bench, I would have more gumption than to try to start a debate only 10 minutes before closing time. But I realise that the wheels grind on—perhaps things are no longer as flexible as they were in my day—so noble Lords will get my speech. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, who is at his post—it is very encouraging to see the chair of Ofcom listening to this debate—and I share a love of music hall. He will remember Eric Morecambe saying that one slot was like the last slot at the Glasgow Empire on a Friday night. That is how I feel now.

A number of references have been made to those who served on the Joint Committee and what an important factor it has been in their thinking. I have said on many occasions that one of the most fulfilling times of my parliamentary life was serving on the Joint Committee for the Communications Act 2003. The interesting thing was that we had no real idea of what was coming down the track as far as the internet was concerned, but we did set up Ofcom. At that time, a lot of the pundits and observers were saying, “Murdoch’s lawyers will have these government regulators for breakfast”. Well, they did not. Ofcom has turned into a regulator for which—at some stages this has slightly worried me—for almost any problem facing the Government, they say, “We’ll give it to Ofcom”. It has certainly proved that it can regulate across a vast area and with great skill. I have every confidence that the noble Lord, Lord Grade, will take that forward.

Perhaps it is to do with the generation I come from, but I do not have this fear of regulation or government intervention. In some ways, the story of my life is that of government intervention. If I am anybody’s child, I am Attlee’s child—not just because of the reforms of the Labour Party, but the reforms of the coalition Government, the Butler Education Act and the bringing in of the welfare state. So I am not afraid of government and Parliament taking responsibility in addressing real dangers.

In bringing forward this amendment, along with my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who cannot be here today, I am referring to legislation that is 20 years old. That is a warning to newcomers; it could be another 20 years before parliamentary time is found for a Bill of this complexity, so we want to be sure that we get its scope right.

The Minister said recently that the Bill is primarily a child safety Bill, but it did not start off that way. Five years ago, the online harms White Paper was seen as a pathfinder and trailblazer for broader legislation. Before we accept the argument that the Bill is now narrowed down to more specific terms, we should think about whether there are other areas that still need to be covered.

These amendments are in the same spirit as those in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell, Lady Bull, and Lady Featherstone. We seek to reinstate an adult risk assessment duty because we fear that the change in title signals a reduction in scope and a retreat from the protections which earlier versions of the Bill intended to provide.

It was in this spirit, and to enable us to get ahead of the game, that in 2016 I proposed a Private Member’s Bill on this subject: the Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill, which asked Ofcom to publish, in advance of the anticipated legislation, assessments of what action was needed to reduce harm to users and wider society from social networks. I think we can all agree that, if that work had been done in advance of the main legislation, such evidence would be very useful now.

I am well aware that there are those who, in the cause of some absolute concepts of freedom, believe that to seek to broaden the scope of the Bill takes us into the realms of the nanny state. But part of the social contract which enables us to survive in this increasingly complex world is that the ordinary citizen, who is busy struggling with the day-to-day challenges of normal life, does trust his Government and Parliament to keep an anticipatory weather eye on what is coming down the track and what dangers lie therein for the ordinary citizen.

When there have been game-changing advances in technology in the past, it has often taken a long time for societies to adapt and adjust. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to the invention of the printing press. That caused the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and around 300 years of war, so we have to be careful how we handle these technological changes. Instagram was founded in 2010, and the iPhone 4 was released then too. One eminent social psychologist wrote:

“The arrival of smartphones rewired social life.”


It is not surprising that liberal democracies, with their essentially 18th-century construct of democracy, struggle to keep up.

The record of big tech in the last 20 years has, yes, been an amazing leap in access to information. However, that quantum leap has come with a social cost in almost every aspect of our lives. Nevertheless, I refuse to accept the premise that these technologies are too global and too powerful in their operation for them not to come within the reach of any single jurisdiction or the rule of law. I am more impressed by efforts by big tech companies to identify and deal with real harms than I am by threats to quit this or that jurisdiction if they do not get the light-touch regulation they want so as to be able to profit maximise.

We know by their actions that some companies and individuals simply do not care about their social responsibilities or the impact of what they sell and how they sell it on individuals and society as a whole. That is why the social contract in our liberal democracies means a central role for Parliament and government in bringing order and accountability into what would otherwise become a jungle. That is why, over the last 200 years, Parliament has protected its citizens from the bad behaviour of employers, banks, loan sharks, dodgy salesmen, insanitary food, danger at work and so on. In this new age, we know that companies large and small, British and foreign, can, through negligence, indifference or malice, drive innocent people into harmful situations. The risks that people face are complex and interlocking; they cannot be reduced to a simple list, as the Government seek to do in Clause 12.

When I sat on the pre-legislative committee in 2003, we could be forgiven for not fully anticipating the tsunami of change that the internet, the world wide web and the iPhone were about to bring to our societies. That legislation did, as I said, establish Ofcom with a responsibility to promote media literacy, which it has only belatedly begun to take seriously. We now have no excuse for inaction or for drawing up legislation so narrowly that it fails to deal with the wide risks that might befall adults in the synthetic world of social media.

We have tabled our amendments not because they will solve every problem or avert every danger but because they would be a step in the right direction and so make this a better Bill.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for namechecking me and the amendments I have tabled with the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Featherstone and Lady Bull, although I regret to inform him that they are not in this group. I understand where the confusion has come from. They were originally in this group, but as it developed I felt that my amendments were no longer in the right place. They are now in the freedom of expression group, which we will get to next week. What he has just said has helped, because the amendments I am bringing forward are not similar to the ones he has tabled. They have a very different purpose. I will not pre-empt the debate we will have when we get to freedom of expression, but I think it is only proper that I make that clear. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the trail.

BBC: Appointment and Resignation of Chair

Lord McNally Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd May 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Ministerial responsibility is a core principle of the public appointments system. It is important that the process is run and is seen to be run in accordance with that code, and that people declare the things they are required to declare, so that people know. However, there are other independent panel members who are appointed to appointment panels to make sure that there is independence in the system. These are decisions on which Ministers are entitled to take a view, in line with the Government’s code.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, nothing the Minister has said so far can give us any confidence that the process is not going to still be influenced by No. 10 Downing Street. Therefore, is it not absolutely imperative that a system of selection be produced that makes it clear that whoever the incumbent is in No. 10, they will not have undue or improper influence on this appointment? I say this as someone who was once head of the political office in No. 10, so I know how that, under successive Governments, there is a desire to interfere. The Government have an opportunity now to create a really transparent, open system, but they have to have the will to do it as well.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The process for appointing the chair of the BBC is set out in the BBC’s royal charter. It requires an appointment to be made by Order in Council following a fair and open competition. By convention, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport recommends the appointment to the Lord President of the Council, and the Prime Minister recommends the appointment to His Majesty the King. It is important that the process be followed and that all public appointments be set out and conducted in accordance with the Government’s code.