Overall, we need accountable decision-makers, not unaccountable regulators, and we need them to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. That is the burden of my argument and the effect of my amendments. I hope that they will command the support of the House.
Viscount Colville of Culross Portrait Viscount Colville of Culross (CB)
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My Lords, the codes of practice are among the most important documents that Ofcom will produce as a result of the Bill—in effect, deciding what content we, the users of the internet, will see. The Government’s right to modify these drafts affects us all, so it is absolutely essential that the codes are trusted.

I, too, welcome the Government’s Amendments 134 to 138, which are a huge improvement on the Clause 39 that was presented in Committee. I am especially grateful that the Government have not proceeded with including economic conditions as a reason for the Secretary of State to modify draft codes, which the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, pointed out in Committee would be very damaging. But I would like the Minister to go further, which is why I put my name to Amendments 139, 140, 144 and 145.

Amendment 139 is so important at the moment. My fear is about the opt-out from publishing these directions from the Secretary of State for Ofcom to modify the draft codes, which will then allow them to be made behind closed doors between the Government and the regulator. This should not be allowed to happen. It would happen at a time when trust in the Government is low and there is a feeling that so many decisions affecting us all are taken without our knowledge. Surely it is right that there should be as much transparency as possible in exposing the pressure that the Minister is placing on the regulator. I hope that, if this amendment is adopted, it will allow Parliament to impose the bright light of transparency on the entire process, which is in danger of becoming opaque.

I am sure that no one wants a repeat of what happened under Section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, which gave the Secretary of State power to give directions of a “general character” to anyone, in the “interests of national security” or international relations, as long as they did not disclose important information to Parliament. The Minister’s power to operate in total secrecy, without any accountability to Parliament, was seen by many as wrong and undemocratic. It was subsequently repealed. Amendments 139 and 140 will prevent the creation of a similar problem.

Likewise, I support Amendment 144, which builds on the previous amendments, as another brake on the control of the Secretary of State over this important area of regulations. Noble Lords in this House know how much the Government dislike legislative ping-pong—which we will see later this evening, I suspect. I ask the Minister to transfer this dislike to limiting ping-pong between the Government and the regulator over the drafting of codes of practice. It would also prevent the Secretary of State or civil servants expanding their control of the draft codes of practice from initial parameters to slightly wider sets of parameters each time that they are returned to the Minister for consideration. It will force the civil servants and the Secretary of State to make a judgment on the limitation of content and ensure that they stick to it. As it is, the Secretary of State has two bites of the cherry. They are involved in the original shaping of the draft codes of practice and then they can respond to Ofcom’s formulation. I hope the Minister would agree that it is sensible to stop this process from carrying on indefinitely. I want the users of the digital world to have full faith that the control of online content they see is above board —and not the result of secretive government overreach.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe Portrait Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
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My Lords, not for the first time I find myself in quite a different place from my noble friend Lord Moylan. Before I go through some detailed comments on the amendments, I want to reflect that at the root of our disagreement is a fundamental view about how serious online safety is. The logical corollary of my noble friend’s argument is that all decisions should be taken by Secretaries of State and scrutinised in Parliament. We do not do that in other technical areas of health and safety in the physical world and we should not do that in the digital world, which is why I take such a different view—

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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 Black of Brentwood Portrait Lord Black of Brentwood (Con)
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My Lords, I am very pleased to say a few words, because I do not want to disappoint my good friend the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who has obviously read the text of my speech before I have even delivered it. I declare my interests as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and a director of the Regulatory Funding Company, and note my other interests as set out in the register.

It will not come as a surprise that I oppose Amendments 159 and 160. I am not going to detain your Lordships for long; there are other more important things to talk about this evening than this seemingly never-ending issue, about which we had a good discussion in Committee. I am sorry that the two noble Lords were indisposed at that time, and I am glad to see they are back on fighting form. I am dispirited that these amendments surfaced in the first place as I do not think they really have anything to do with online safety and the protection of children. This is a Bill about the platforms, not the press. I will not repeat all the points we discussed at earlier stages. Suffice it to say that, in my view, this is not the time and the place to seek to impose what would be statutory controls on the press, for the first time since that great liberal, John Locke, led the charge for press freedom in 1695 when the Licensing Acts were abolished. Let us be clear: despite what the two noble Lords said, that is what these amendments would do, and I will briefly explain why.

These amendments seek to remove the exemption for news publishers from an onerous statutory regime overseen by Ofcom, which is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, a state regulator, unless they are part of an approved regulator. Yet no serious publisher, by which I mean the whole of the national and regional press, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said—including at least 95% of the industry, from the Manchester Evening News to Cosmopolitan magazine—is ever going to join a regulator which is approved by the state. Even that patron saint of press controls, Sir Brian Leveson, conceded that this was a “principled position” for the industry to take. The net effect of these amendments would be, at a stroke, to subject virtually the entire press to state regulation—a momentous act wholly inimical to any definition of press freedom and free speech—and with very little discussion and absolutely no consultation.