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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I agree with so much of what has been said in the past hour. I agree entirely about the importance of media and how the industry is different from other markets, such as baked beans, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said. I could put up quite a good case for the importance of baked beans, actually, but let that pass. There is a great deal of common ground on all these issues. The maintenance of plurality and the public interest test is essential to the consideration of the Bill.
But it is my unpleasant duty to bring the debate back to the actual amendments, the effect that they would have on the Bill and what the legislation does. I am sorry to say that much of what has been said seems to assume that the Government are determined to demolish the public interest test and plurality rules. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, quoted Kim Howells speaking in the Commons with approval about plurality. I echo what Kim Howells saidit would be more than my job's worth to disagree, would it not? Surely, it is clear from what is said, and from a study of the Bill, that our policy is to set clear, specific limits on ownership through key rules. We set media ownership rules. We see that as the best method of guaranteeing adequate plurality.
The amendment would allow a new public interest consideration relating to media plurality, including newspapers, to be included in the Enterprise Act. It would enable the Secretary of State to intervene in mergers that raise that consideration. That means that, where there is a merger of television or radio companies and the Secretary of State thinks that it gives rise to public interest considerations, she could give an intervention notice and call the OFT and Ofcom to make a report. In the light of that report, she could refer the merger to the Competition Commission for consideration both of competition aspects and the plurality issues. The amendments are applying to broadcast media the same rules as apply to newspapers now.
I suggest to the Committee that we are in no way weakening the rules as they apply to newspapers. Any comments about newspaper variety, plurality, diversity and all those aspects are legitimate, but they do not relate to the Bill as it does not change provision for newspaper mergers. We have not provided what the amendments would provide because the broadcast media are different from newspapers. Newspapers are free in this country; no licence is required to publish a newspaper. But, because of spectrum scarcity over many years, there has been in place a system of licensing for broadcast media. It is under that system, ever since plurality of broadcasting startedwith Radio Luxembourg before the war and ITV in 1995that governments have exercised the public interest criterion through the licensing procedure. That is what the Bill provides to continue. There is no
Of course I acknowledge that that may not be the case in future. With technological change and the potential for the abolition of spectrum scarcity, licensing may no longer become necessary. That is why the Bill provides that, at such a time, the Government can, without primary legislation, under the Enterprise Act, extend the public interest criterion in competition law to the broadcast media.
There has been reference to belt and braces. We have such provision. We have a protection of the test in addition to economic tests, and we have protection of the public interest in broadcasting through the licensing procedure. If, and when, that no longer applies, we have the capability, which we will assuredly use, to implement the public interest test through merger law into the broadcast media.
My noble friend Lord Puttnam raised the serious issue of cross-media rules. He pointed out that there is always a difficulty with them, as there is with all merger legislation. That can be triggered only by a merger. In other words, if there is a change in market share by some newspapers or some channels becoming more popular and having a larger audience, there is no way in which the existing restrictions can be triggered. However, that is also true of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Puttnam, because he does not seek to introduce a regime whereby media owners will be required to divest themselves of assets because they are being successful. That is the only way in which one can deal with that progressive change, that creeping change, as it were. So I am sorry, but the amendments do not solve the problem that he identifies.
The other issue is over who should be responsible for protecting the interests of the citizen. The amendments provide that the Secretary of State and Ofcom should be responsible for doing that. We provide in the Bill, and the existing regime provides, a licensing regime which allows the certainty and stability which is not possible in the newspaper industry. Parliament can agree the licence-based limits for media ownership and will have to agree to any changes of the rules. That is how the interests of the citizen are protected. They are not protected in the same way in the amendments.
There was scepticism about the industry's dislike for uncertainty. My noble friend Lord Borrie in particular, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, dismissed that consideration by saying "well, they would say that wouldn't they?" However, I hope that I have shown that if we can protect the public interest without uncertainty, surely it is better not to have that uncertainty. It is not the uncertainty to which the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, was referring of what happens when a reference is made. The uncertainty that would arise if the amendments were agreed to is that two parallel regimes would exist at the same time for broadcast media. One would be for licensing and one of competition policy. That might not last for ever, but to propose that change would be an unnecessary addition to regulation.
In summary, the amendments would be more regulatory. They would be an additional requirement to the existing provisions for protecting the public interests. They are not wanted. They are not wanted by the broadcasting industry for legitimate reasons, not just to protect its own interest. The amendments also are not necessary. We have a plurality test for newspapers because there are no licences, and we have to ensure the accurate expression of news and the free expression of opinionalthough not within a single newspaper. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, about that. If we started to say that individual newspapers had to be balanced we would be transforming our view of the relationships between Government and a free press. In broadcasting the licensing regime makes it possible to set simple rules, based on licence holdings, and there are already statutory requirements for accurate and impartial news and the prominence that can be given to any particular viewpoint. I believe that, although the motivation behind the amendments is admirable, and although the opinions expressed in their favour all around the Committee are sincere and given with the highest motives, they are based on a profound misconception.
Lord Puttnam: I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I do not think that 11-2 is a bad result, although my noble friend Lord Gordon would concede that that is something they are more used to in Scotland than we are in England when one is on the losing side.
Lord Puttnam: Never bring soccer into the Chamber. I shall run through one or two points. I listened to the Minster with great interest. His arguments were very wide-ranging. I did not think that he laid a glove on the amendmentnot a glove. I shall also take up one point. I thought that it was wrong of him deliberately to misinterpret the reference to plurality by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill. It does not do the Government much justice deliberately to attempt to inflate her sensible and thoughtful position. I was enormously influenced, as I am sure that many other noble Lords have been, by her Reith Lectures 18 months ago. Maybe the Minister could do himself a favour by sitting down and listening to them. They were extraordinarily instructive.
Lord Puttnam: Clearly, I was much more influenced by them than was my noble friend. I am grateful for the position taken by my noble friend Lord Borrie. There is an absolute needI wrote down "need" at first and then crossed it outan obligation in the 21st century to look right across the issue of media ownershipto look across the whole of the media. It is absurd in the 21st century to attempt to segment the media and to imagine that one could come to correct judgments regarding influence and plurality of voice.
I was also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. I agree with her. Optimising the media voice is at the core of the issue. I look forward to sitting down with her, because I have no intention of wrecking the amendment by one or two items of wording with which she is not happy. They shall go, but I am sure that we shall march happily through any Lobby together.
My noble friend Lord Gordon mentioned concentration of ownership. I suggest to him that concentration does not result in diversity. Every scrap of evidence that I have been able to adduce suggests that in the vast majority of cases the exact reverse is true.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, of High Cross, is a reformed character. My heart leapt when I heard him begin to speak. I suggest that as part of his cure he chats to the EU Commissioner Chris Patten about the circumstances under which Harper Collins withdrew from his book on China, and whether the proprietor had any say in that extraordinarily aberrant decision. The noble Lord might also like to circle the world and find out why 274 out of 275 editors of Newscorp newspapers came to exactly the same conclusion as their proprietor on the war in Iraq. Interestingly, the only one that did not was I believe in Borneo, where that opinion would have resulted in a catastrophic drop in circulation in a Muslim country. Presumably that editor was given leave to desist. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, seems to have made more of an impact on the Government's position than all the rest of us put together. That is interesting.
My noble friend Lord Bragg was right to say that our lives are affected by the legislation. I would say that not only our lives are affected, but our children's lives and in my case our grandchildren's lives. The issues go far, far beyond this Chamber, and far, far beyond the interest that the Government appear to be taking in their breadth and seriousness. We shall undoubtedly return to this at Report stage when, unless the Government are prepared seriously to reconsider their position, I cannot imagine us not dividing on the issue. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.