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Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

12. What recent representations he has received on the implications for the broadcasting sector of the decision by News Corporation not to proceed with its proposed acquisition of BSkyB. (70599)

It will not surprise the House to know that I received a number of representations over the News Corp BSkyB bid during its progress and considered them all carefully.

Does the Secretary of State now agree with the Opposition that one of the lessons of the phone hacking scandal and the attempted takeover of BSkyB is that new, tougher cross-media ownership laws are required in this country and that no one media organisation should have such a concentration of power again?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to look carefully at cross-media ownership laws. I agree with him as well that this needs to be done on a cross-media basis; it is not about the dominance of any individual platform any more. We also need to look at whether the merger rules for media takeovers work as effectively as they might. We will listen very carefully to the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson before taking action.

Let me say to the Secretary of State that I may have included the words “Ministers” and “waste of time” in the same sentence, but not in the context of local television. I appeared on Channel M, the example of my local TV station, but the project ended in tears because it was simply not viable.

Throughout the BSkyB process, the Secretary of State maintained that he could consider only plurality and that allegations about phone hacking and other illegal practices were not covered by the relevant legislation. Is he now willing to work with me and the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) to introduce amendments to the current legislation on an all-party basis to include a wider public interest test and to allow regulators to apply a “fit and proper person” test? That would close loopholes in advance of the longer-term reform of media ownership that will come as a result of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. Is the Secretary of State willing to work with me and the right hon. Gentleman on an all-party basis to bring forward those amendments?

Of course I will listen to all representations made, but I do not think that the shadow Culture Secretary quite understands the way the law works. If the bid were re-presented, under the Enterprise Act 2002 it would count as a new bid and, as Secretary of State, I would have the power to refer it to Ofcom on the basis of broadcasting standards, media plurality or, indeed, national security, so safeguards exist. However, if what the hon. Gentleman is really trying to say is that Rupert Murdoch and his children are evil and must be stopped at all costs, just wait until he sees “The Godfather”.

I think the Secretary of State should speak for himself on those issues. It is absolutely clear that if there were to be a new bid, the only basis on which he could consider it would be plurality and broadcasting standards. He could not ask regulators to look at the wider public interest, nor could he insist that they apply a “fit and proper person” test. That is why we urgently need action now.

Let me turn quickly to a related issue. Can the Secretary of State clear up once and for all whether he discussed News Corp’s proposed acquisition of BSkyB with the Prime Minister at any stage during the quasi-judicial process? To be clear: I am not asking whether he consulted the Prime Minister on any decision that he had to make, but whether they discussed it during that period.

As I have told the shadow Culture Secretary, the decision was mine and mine alone, and I did not consult the Prime Minister about that decision. Not only that, but I consulted Ofcom and got independent advice, which I followed. However, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he still does not appreciate that section 3 of the Communications Act 2003, which was passed by his Government, gives Ofcom the duty to ensure that all holders of broadcast licences are fit and proper at all times and the duty to remove them at any time, so these powers exist. We want to strengthen them in specific areas, and we are working hard to ensure that we make the right changes to avoid what happened before happening again.