Debates between Lord McNally and Lord Bassam of Brighton during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Mon 20th May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage

Media Bill

Debate between Lord McNally and Lord Bassam of Brighton
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.

Telegraph Media Group Ltd: Acquisition

Debate between Lord McNally and Lord Bassam of Brighton
Wednesday 1st May 2024

(2 months, 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.