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Lord McNally: I do not believe that I have heard anyone deliver assurances in such emollient tones since I used to listen to Dr Charles Hill as the radio doctor. How could one doubt the Minister when he gives us such assurances?

Whether this was the time to future-proof and give flexibility caused a question mark in the mind of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee. I shall consult my noble friends who co-sponsored the amendment and read the Minister's assurances. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 340 agreed to.

Clause 341 [Licence holding by local authorities]:

[Amendment No. 290A not moved.]

Clause 341 agreed to.

Clause 342 [Relaxation of licence-holding restrictions]:

[Amendments Nos. 290B and 290C not moved.]

Clause 342 agreed to.

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1514

Schedule 14 [Media ownership rules]:

[Amendments Nos. 290CA and 290CB had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendments Nos. 290D and 291 not moved.]

Lord Puttnam moved Amendment No. 292:

    Page 430, line 23, at end insert—

Ban on newspaper proprietors holding a Channel 5 licence

6A (1) A person is not to hold a Channel 5 licence if—
(a) he runs a national newspaper which for the time being has a national market share of 20 per cent or more; or
(b) he runs national newspapers which for the time being together have a national market share of 20 per cent or more.
(2) For the purposes of this paragraph, each of the following shall be treated as holding a Channel 5 licence—
(a) the actual licence holder; and
(b) every person connected with the actual licence holder.
(3) The provisions of paragraphs 2 to 4 of this Schedule shall apply for the purposes of this Part of this Schedule insofar as they relate to national newspapers as if a Channel 5 licence were a licence to provide a Channel 3 service."

The noble Lord said: The amendment gives the Committee an opportunity to debate Recommendation 89 from the Joint Select Committee that the prohibition of joint ownership of Channel 5 and of a major national newspaper group should be retained. When moving Amendment No. 280 this morning, I honestly believed—perhaps naively—that we were offering the Government an alternative way forward on these vexed ownership issues. As the Committee will remember, that offer was rebuffed, somewhat to my surprise, albeit that Members of the Committee will surely find it hard to follow the logic of the Government's argument when they study it in Hansard prior to regrouping their forces for Report stage.

The Government have chosen their ground for battle, which is fine by me. I signalled my intention to the Government at the end of our Committee sitting on 22nd May that I would seek evidence-based responses in justification of their policy proposals, especially in the area of ownership changes. Given the nature of the responses that we have received so far from the Government Front Bench, and for the sake of brevity, I have decided to hold my fire on my own evidence-based objections, as it strikes me that they will be better used, and that we should avoid repetition, if I made them on Report. That would give an opportunity to seek the opinion of the House.

So I shall instead restrict myself to this observation. Today in Committee we have listened to, or had access to, two dozen noble Lords all of whom have direct and specific experience of the broadcasting industry or its regulation. I had the enormous privilege of chairing the Joint Scrutiny Committee which over a 10-week period was able to review literally hundreds of pieces of evidence and talk to hundreds of concerned individuals, and we reported accordingly. However the Government know better. Or, as Mark Twain once said,

    "Every dogma has its day".

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1515

In conversation with some of the officials who prepared the Bill, they agreed that this particular clause was a "judgment call"—their words, not mine. I would ask whose judgment and based on what expertise that is unavailable to the rest of us. It is quite clear to me that the two dozen expert voices that we have heard just in this House disagree with the Government's position. Before sitting down, therefore, I shall offer the Government three more bits of evidence—or assertions, as they certainly seem to prefer assertions—for them to chew over between now and Report stage.

The first one is from FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. It is significant because, as the Committee will know, on Monday of this week the FCC voted, along party lines, by three votes to two, to add significantly to the deregulation of the American broadcasting industry. Mr Copps said:

    "I see centralisation, not localism. I see uniformity, not diversity. I see monopoly and oligopoly, not competition. This is a huge and foolhardy gamble with the future. Every American's future. This issue is not Republican or Democratic, it is not liberal or conservative, it is not north or south, not young nor old".

He quoted Judge Learned Hand, who reminded us that the hand that rules the press, the radio, the screen and the fast-spread magazines rules the country. Mr Copps concluded:

    "The largest company owned less than 75 radio stations before deregulation. Today, one company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200 stations, eight stations in many cities, and in some towns virtually all the stations available. In fact the number of radio station owners has decreased by an incredible 34 per cent since 1996".

As Mr Copps said, this is not an issue of right or left. So I offer the views of the respected conservative columnist, William Safire, in the New York Times of 22nd May. He said:

    "The overwhelming amount of news and entertainment comes via broadcast and print. Putting these outlets in fewer and bigger hands profits the few at the cost of the many. Does that sound unconservative? Not to me. The concentration of power—political, corporate, media, cultural—should be anathema to all conservatives. The diffusion of power through local control is the greatest expression of democracy".

To those on my own Benches I would say that there is tremendous resonance in the notion of power being given to the many, not the few. That is something to which certainly I signed up in 1997.

The Committee will forgive me if, as a movie producer, I finish with a quote from the film "Network". Noble Lords may remember that Peter Finch played, and won the Oscar for, the role of a type of Walter Cronkite figure who had just had enough. I think that he was called Howard Beale. He said:

    "You people and 62 million other Americans are listening to me right now because less than 3 per cent of you read books, because less than 15 per cent of you read newspapers, because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now there is a whole generation that never knew anything that did not come out of this tube. The tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. The tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome force in the whole godless world and woe to us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people".

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1516

I hope that the Government will explain how this particular part of their policy makes it absolutely certain that this extraordinary power will never fall into the hands of the wrong people. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: What the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, just said has tremendous truth. I support what he said completely. I was talking to none other than Floella Benjamin along that line yesterday.

I support the amendment. The Government's decision to relax the existing restrictions on Channel 5 is based on the premise that in comparison with Channel 3, Channel 5 is a much smaller enterprise. That premise then leads to the conclusion, so we understand, that there is no need for there to be any restriction as to who can hold a Channel 5 licence. The Government therefore propose that anyone who runs a national newspaper, however large its market share, will be entitled to hold a Channel 5 licence.

The logic is unfortunately flawed. It ignores the future. It is possible that in a few years' time Channel 5 will be a more substantial concern than Channel 3. Indeed, without restriction on the holder of a Channel 3 licence, it is more likely than not that Channel 5 will develop considerably in the future. It is almost inevitable that a newspaper group will come to control Channel 5 and will exploit that opportunity in a way that would not be possible with Channel 3.

Channel 5 presents a wonderful opportunity to a newspaper proprietor. It would be sitting there waiting to be exploited. It will inevitably develop a far greater market share than Channel 3 if in the hands of a national newspaper proprietor with significant market share. The result will be that the mischief that the Government intend or wish to avoid as regards Channel 3 will be achieved as regards Channel 5. We must stop that. I support the amendment.

Lord Lipsey: I am very sympathetic to the objective which my noble friend Lord Puttnam seeks to obtain, but I am not necessarily wholly convinced that this is the best method.

Before dealing with that, however, I should like to say that there has been a lot of talk today about Murdoch buying Channel 5 and the consequences. We should not think that just because something is possible it is certain to happen. An awful lot of hoops would have to be gone through before that happened. First, he would have to want to buy it. I shall return to that point. Next, the existing owners would have to want to sell it—that is, be convinced that he could get more value out of it than they could. They would then have to agree a price. The change would have to be approved by the competition authority. He would then have to invest huge sums in it and that investment would have to pay off. Not all his investments pay off although many of them do. It could happen of course, but it will not necessarily happen. I do not think that we should always be totally diverted by a single possibility. There are other newspaper proprietors and other people. We should try to look at the wider picture.

5 Jun 2003 : Column 1517

The second and perhaps more important point is that if Murdoch does want to establish a strong presence here, it is not true that his only route is to buy Channel 5. Another possibility—which becomes more of a possibility as we get more and more digital homes; and we will of course all be digital homes when we get to switch-off—would be to make one of the existing Sky channels a heavily promoted, free-to-air channel funded through advertising. If we block the route of buying Channel 5, it would make that route more attractive. It might be just as dangerous. There is no lasting miracle to being a terrestrial broadcaster. It is a distinction that with time will mean ever less.

I do not think that there is a perfect solution here, but there is a three-legged approach that might offer an alternative to the approach in the amendment. The three legs are as follows. The first—we debated it earlier—is a much stronger public interest test for the competition authorities to bear in mind. The second is protection against the very specific abuses that can occur in cross-media ownership. The great fear in respect of cross-media ownership is that one uses the Sun to advertise one's TV channel. If there were in the Bill a set of cleverly devised measures that would prevent that kind of abuse of cross-media ownership, that might be more effective than simply banning such ownership.

The third leg—and this is the great difference with the United States—is stronger appropriate content regulation. The Government have already moved some way in that direction for Channel 5. It would be possible, as the Secretary of State said recently, for that content regulation to become stiffer as the channel grows, so I would not want anything as crude a simple ceiling ratchet, but there could be a device of that kind.

The philosophy of the Bill, which I broadly share, is that control of ownership is not the best way to regulate content. I hope I have spoken in a constructive spirit in seeking almost exactly the same objectives as my noble friend Lord Puttnam. I hope that I have set out a more constructive approach towards achieving the result that we all want, without the crude kind of control that is implicit in the amendment.

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