Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Fowler: I agreed with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said—right until the end when he asserted the greater importance of the national press over the regional press. As the former chairman of the Birmingham Post group of newspapers and the Yorkshire Post group of newspapers, I strongly deny that. If the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, with his usual analytical method, refers to public opinion surveys, he will find that the regional press—this does not come as much of a surprise—is much more trusted by the public than is the national press. I say that in passing, because I agreed with so much else of what he said.

Lord Borrie: I do not wish to interrupt the noble Lord. The exceptional examples he mentioned may deal with matters of national and political importance in a way that the great run of local newspapers virtually never does, except presumably at election time.

Lord Fowler: We must not pursue the matter, but I profoundly disagree with that point as well. The noble Lord will find that many millions of people in this country regard local and regional news as being of the greatest importance to their lives and place the greatest importance on accurate reporting. The great distinction of the regional and local press is that they live and go back to their public, whereas the national

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1439

press—I too speak as an ex-national press man—comes in, goes out and is not seen again. Perhaps we might have that debate on another occasion.

I strongly support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. The essential question is whether the media are different from other industries and therefore deserving of any kind of extra provision over and above competition law.

Some people say that the media industry is just like any other industry. That is probably the position of my honourable friend Mr Whittingdale in another place, but it is not one with which I agree. I agree strongly with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that newspapers and the media in general raise special issues.

Any additional restriction should be scrutinised very carefully. But the fact that a free-market country such as the United States retains a prohibition on some forms of foreign control of the media—we will shortly come to that issue—at least indicates that there is a case to consider.

The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is right in his assessment. That does not mean that media industries are more important than other industries. It certainly does not mean that they are better or worse managed than other industries. News International was mentioned. Mr Murdoch deserves a great deal of credit for what he did to reform the newspaper industry and for taking on some very reactionary forces within it. Without that intervention, I fear that we would not have quite the strength and breadth of newspapers we have today.

Media industries have an impact on the democratic debate that other industries, however important they may be, simply do not have. Most people believe that it would be wrong for any one organisation to have an over-powerful voice in the democratic debate by virtue of owning a disproportionate part of the newspaper industry, or television and radio, or a combination of them. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that one needs an extra provision to preserve media plurality in some way. I agree with him that the trouble with the current situation is that we rely on existing powers that are designed to look at competition from a purely economic standpoint.

Perhaps I may give an analogy, which is not totally exact but which illustrates my point. I am the chairman of a pharmacy group. We have 1,500 community pharmacies across the country. Some months ago, the Office of Fair Trading published a report on deregulation. I was invited to the meeting just before publication. I asked what consideration had been given not just to the competition issue, but to health policy, given that it is the Government's policy, which I strongly support, that pharmacy and health policy are fully integrated. The reply, in precis, was that no consideration was given to that issue at all because that was not the remit. One needs therefore to spell out exactly what one wants of the competition authorities, and I would suggest that media plurality is part of that.

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1440

The amendment enables us to spell out plainly that when the public interest is being assessed, the question of media plurality should not merely be addressed: there should be a requirement that it must be addressed. If that is the input of the amendment, I am strongly in support of it and I think that the public would be strongly in support of it.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: I, too, support the amendment. The whole Committee will be grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Borrie, who got to the nub of the issue. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, for his forensic analysis of the letter from News International, which I, too, received. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, put his finger on the point that our discussion about competition law and the media is about a special industrial matter, which is not subject to the same kind of regulation that others may be.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Puttnam for drawing attention to the need for an evidence base in looking at the issue. I would add one other requirement to the list of those he defined as being necessary to achieve public interest and media plurality. If I could, I would add that to Amendment No. 280A. I would also add a requirement for broadcast and investment quotas for domestic original production to the public interest consideration. That investment obligation is imposed statutorily in other OECD countries. That has been widely shown by very authoritative studies. I quoted from one review of public broadcast legislation published by the Social Market Foundation when we were last in Committee. I shall not do so again in order to speed proceedings, which I think is in the interests of Members of the Committee today. But I just tell the Committee that after a wide review of the strict regulation of public interest through broadcast investment quotas, this report and others conclude that Britain should be inspired by the examples of other legislatures.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I rise to strike a somewhat discordant note. It is not often that I take issue with the conclusions of the committee of my noble friend Lord Puttnam. However, since I have already done so in print on this issue, he will not be surprised that I do so now. I am slightly concerned that we are making plurality a litmus test of the public interest. I am worried that noble Lords are quoting plurality and diversity as though they go hand in hand. In my view they are frequently in direct opposition to each other.

I confine my remarks solely to the field of broadcasting, not because I do not think that the issue is important in the press, but because in broadcasting we are dealing with organisations which are already bound by rules of impartiality. Therefore, the issue of plurality is not important in ensuring impartiality. That is done by regulation. I fully concede that that is not true in the press and so a different argument applies.

The reason we have Ofcom and are bringing all these different fields together is precisely because regulation of programme content, technical means of delivering

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1441

programmes, finance and sources of funding and ownership converge and intertwine. I sometimes feel that there has almost been a naive assumption in some of our earlier debates about regulation that, provided we put it in an Act of Parliament that is great; it will happen.

I take a reductio ab absurdum: if one halves the BBC licence fee, it will not produce such good programmes. That might be accepted. Let us transfer that to the commercial sector: if one wants a Granada company that can produce "Jewel in the Crown" and "Brideshead Revisited", frankly, one will not do it with this kind of legislation because market forces dictate that resources are less available for the making of programmes than they were previously. Some of that is due to a decline in advertising. No one can do anything about that matter; hopefully it will return. Furthermore, I do not say that there should be no competition. That would be a backward step, which is not to be welcomed.

However, I do say that if we place Ofcom in a situation where a television or radio owner wishes to introduce a new service and a new entrant also wants to introduce a service, there should not be an automaticity of decision-making in favour of the new entrant. This will become a box-ticking exercise, rather like the Higgs committee report on non-executive directors. There is a very real danger here. I realise that if one has the same owner one will undoubtedly have more diversity because it is in his own self-interests to produce diversity. Not only that, but he will save the overheads of administration, sales and so on and therefore have more money for programming. He will also not be spending money marketing against his opposition.

I do not go in for marketing a great deal, but the amount of money that has been spent marketing rival radio services in London could have gone into programming. It is having to be spent fighting competition for the same territory. I do not say that there should be no competition but that one should not always assume that competition is a good thing. So I wholeheartedly agree with speakers such as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who say that media are different. I also agree that we need an extra provision other than simply competition law, but I argue that that extra provision may lead us away from plurality if the public interest looks for diversity. That is a more important consideration than ownership from the viewer's point of view.

11.45 a.m.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I intervene very briefly. I apologise for having missed the first 50 seconds of the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. I wholeheartedly support these amendments. However, even if they are agreed there will still be difficulties.

The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, with whom I do not entirely agree, has raised an important point. Interpretation of public interest has always been one of

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1442

the most difficult aspects of competition policy. As the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said, the Competition Commission at present would not have those powers in judging the kind of case that the amendment addresses. But it is very important to consider the question of quality, which is the point that I believe the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, was making: that the public interest test in cases in particular with broadcasting are very much more difficult to make than in any other sector. I do not know to what extent quality would even enter into them. However, the fact remains that I believe these amendments are extremely necessary.

I should just like to tweak the nose of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, who is in his place. A number of years ago he and I appeared on one of these "Any Question?" programmes at South Hampstead High School where his children were, I believe, educated, as were my grandchildren. The question was put as to whether it would be fair to allow newspapers to produce magazines in competition with the Radio Times. He was greatly alarmed at that thought. He said that it could not possibly be anything other than most dangerous to allow the Radio Times to be undermined in that way; that it would not be able to plan its programming in competition with other magazines; and that all the aspects of it would be extremely dangerous.

So we have moved on. We have made progress. Evolution has taken place. I hope that with the passage of these amendments it will go even further.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page