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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: One reason that the debate on this amendment has gone on for over an hour is because the matter was not debated at all in the House of Commons. To give this crucial issue a good airing is our duty rather than merely our choice.
I associate myself entirely with those who have looked at this from a cultural point of view. I believe that one cannot emphasise too strongly that in talking about broadcasting and the media, it is wholly different, as "Monty Python" said, from looking at cans of beans, to use the example of my noble friend Lord Thomson. I would say the same if we were
There are particular dangers in confining the debate to the United States, for which I have the greatest admiration and against which I have not the slightest innate anti feeling. But there are dangers in allowing the massive purchasing power of a comparable culture to come into our own much smaller patch without let or hindrance. An owner from California will not have the same cultural commitment and identification with our great television presences, and that is already weak, as we have. The tyros of American media are not influencable in the same way as our own leaders. They are beyond touch or reach, personally and socially, to a high degree. They do not breathe the same cultural and geographical air.
Ownership is wholly different from regulation. Some may be tempted to believe that it is a matter of indifference to have regulation in the Bill. I think the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, referred to the public sector remit requirements of Clause 260, which we debated on Tuesday. The Government assurance, then given, that Clause 260 would apply to Channels 3, 4 and 5 was inaccurate and incorrect. It is not the case that if any of the great American beasts came into our small wood they would be subject to all the controls of Clause 260. But regulation, in any event, is a much weaker vessel. Regulation on the page is often very different from regulation on the street. That is partly a function of the complexity of the regulation we are talking about, partly of the legalisation of regulation and the fact that the privateer will always have at its beck and call a much greater army of legal power than ever the bureaucrats will.
I had one direct example of this when I was legal adviser to the independent directors of the Observer when it was owned by Tiny Rowland of Lonrho. Subsequently, I became a proprietor when the Scott Trust purchased the Observer from Lonrho. I have therefore seen this from both sides of the fence.
Those who are not used to dealing with such situations might take too much solace from the protections supposedly afforded by such as the independent director arrangements that prevailed for the Observer. Those arrangements did very little to restrict the rather sad effects of Tiny Rowland's influence on the paper that he ownedhis influence via his appointments of the chief of staff, the editor, control of remunerations, control of funding for the paper and the rest of it. I beg those who are relatively indifferent to Amendment No. 285, on the grounds that there is plenty of regulation, to think again.
Lastly, I refer again to Sir Denis Forman, because I believe his views to be of interest to the Committee. It was very interesting and warming to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bernstein, refer to his long partnership and experience with Sir Denis in Granada. He has absolutely no doubt about the importance of the amendment, and nor does Sir Jeremy Isaacs, with whom I have spoken. Sir Denis Forman said that,
I close by reminding the Committee that at the beginning of this week the relevant Congress committee decided to dismantle the already weak cross-ownership controls within the United States, so that the four big groups will shortly have even greater and titanic force.
Lord Grocott: I am conscious of the fact that we are going beyond the time at which we would normally break on a Thursday. However, if I judge the mood of the Chamber correctly, we are having an extremely important debate on what everyone recognised right at the start was one of the key issues in the Bill. It would be sensible if, with the agreement of Members of the Committee, we completed this group of amendments, even if that means us running on longer than we normally would at this time on a Thursday. I hope that that is the feeling of the Committee.
Baroness Blackstone: I am very aware that noble Lords want their lunch. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for simply saying, with short and sweet brevity, that she supports the Government. I shall try to be short, sweet and to the point as well, so that we can all have a break and have something to eat.
I begin by addressing Amendments Nos. 285, 308, 322A and 322B. The starting point of our policy is that we believe that the existing rules are inconsistent and outdated. As every speaker in the debate knows, there is nothing at present to prevent persons from EEA states from holding any type of UK licence. There are a number of different kinds of broadcasting licences that non-EEA states can already own.
As a result of existing rules, American companies already have a presence in UK media markets. They have helped build our satellite, cable and magazine industries. However, the current rules mean that Bertelsmann, a huge German company, could buy anything that it wanted, but that similar global firms such as Disney or Viacom cannot. That distinction is inconsistent and has no clear justification. We believe that opening up the UK broadcasting industry to foreign ownership should lead to increased investment, productivity and efficiency, and the introduction of new management skills and ideas. That, in turn, should mean better programmes for viewers.
Inevitably, debates on this subject turn to the question of American ownership and the fear that content quality will be eroded. That is what Members of the Committee have said in the debate today. The Government wholeheartedly understand and sympathise with that view. It is an entirely proper concern to look at the experience of countries like the US and New Zealand and say, "Not here, thank you". I associate myself personally with that view. However, we are not the US or anyone else. It is not the Government's intention to introduce a US-type market in the UK, and that is not what this Bill does. One must not be tempted to draw misleading comparisons with American TV. The fact is that the UK has strong content regulations which will maintain the quality and impartiality of our programming. The United States have no such content rules. In television, the Bill sets out for the first time the overall public service broadcasting remit, which requires the broadcast of a wide range of programme forms and genres. US broadcasters have no comparable public service remits.
Let me outline how the regulatory and public service provisions work. There will be demanding obligations for EU production, original production for UK screens, regional production and independent production. Under Clause 274, which concerns original productions, the Secretary of State defines what is an original production. The definition can be amended and the quota itself can be increased. Ofcom will be able to review licence commitments for regional programming and production, original production and news and current affairs programmes on a change of control of a Channel 3 or Channel 5 licence, and to
In relation to local radio, Ofcom will be subject to a new duty to carry out its functions so as to protect and promote local content. When a local licence changes hands, Ofcom will be able to vary the licence conditions in order to maintain the existing local character of the service and the quality and range of programmes included in it.
There are strict rules to prevent anyone from using UK broadcasting companies to further their own political agenda. For example, all broadcast news must be presented and reported with due accuracy and impartiality, and owners are prevented from using radio or TV stations to broadcast their own views on matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy. These extensive provisions will act as a guarantee of quality and diversity, regardless of who owns the channels.
In the Second Reading debate, my noble friend Baroness Cohen of Pimlico expressed concern that the content provisions would be bulldozed over by the financial muscle of American broadcasting companies. However, I am confident that we have robust provisions in place to prevent any evasion of the content rules. Ofcom will have sufficient power to ensure that any change in ownership does not dilute the UK's strong production base, its heritage of regional production or the thriving independent production sector. Broadcasters could be fined or ultimately have their licences revoked if they do not abide by their licence conditions.
The market also has its role to play in programme quality. That point was raisedon this occasion I am sureby the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. It would make no commercial sense for US companies simply to "dump" their content on UK screens even if they could. British viewers and listeners demand quality and British content, and if they do not get it they will simply go elsewhere.
I say to my noble friend Lady Jay that I find it rather hard to believe that a US owner would not care at all about audience figures. I believe that they would have to take them into account for the very reasons that I have suggested. In the end, it would make rather little commercial sense for them completely to ignore them.
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