rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Communications Committee on the ownership of the news (First Report, HL Paper 122).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in this report the committee examined the impact of ownership of the media on the news that is provided for the public. First, I should like to thank the members of the committee for their extremely hard work on this report. It was a very good team and I very much appreciate all their work. I should also like to thank our small team of advisers and officials whose skill was invaluable. In particular, I should like to thank our clerk, Chloe Mawson, who is leaving us on promotion. She has made a tremendous contribution to this committee and its predecessor committee. I should also like to thank very sincerely the many people who gave evidence to us on both sides of the Atlantic. Again, their evidence was of enormous value. Perhaps I may pick out the evidence we received from very senior figures in the press and television in New York and Washington.
At the same time, I welcome very much to this debate the new Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about whom I shall say more later after he has made his maiden speech as the wind-up to this debate. I of course remind him that we expect his maiden speech to be uncontroversial. The only way he can achieve that is by agreeing with everything in our report. We look forward to that.
I shall start by setting out our belief. We believe that the news media have a vital role in a democracy. They report news from home and overseas. They can expose injustice and challenge officialdom and Government—any Government. At the same time, healthy media set out a huge range of views. It follows that media concentrated in too few hands can have the effect of limiting freedom of expression and diversity of view, which are the hallmarks of a democratic state. It can put too much power in the hands of one company or one individual.
In New York we interviewed Rupert Murdoch. I should add that he volunteered to be interviewed and was entirely frank about his position. He said that he was prevented by assurances he had given when taking over the Times and the Sunday Times from controlling their editorial stance, but when it came to the Sun and the News of the World, he was, in his words, the “traditional proprietor”. He set down the broad political stance of those papers, and hence the elaborate political courting of him by the political parties.
How concentrated is media ownership in this country? It is beyond doubt that over the past 30 to 40 years, ownership of the media in the UK has become more and more consolidated. In the national newspaper industry, one company has more than 35 per cent of the national newspaper market, while in the regional and local press, four publishers have 70 per cent of the circulation across the country. Radio news is dominated by the BBC with 55 per cent of radio listening, a position which has now been underlined by the announcement from Channel 4 that it will not enter the market after all. That leaves the commercial radio market dominated by four companies with a 77 per cent share. National television news is produced by three companies, the BBC, ITN and BSkyB. Only those companies produce national and international content. At the same time we have a position where there are increasing levels of cross-media ownership, notably owners with stakes in both newspapers and television.
There is an argument that this concentration of ownership does not matter much, with the implication that any special rules governing ownership of the media should be swept away and the matter left to ordinary competition law. The argument is that with such a multitude of providers, regulation to ensure competition is unnecessary. It is added that although there has been an increasing concentration of ownership, the traditional media of newspapers, radio and television are neither as big nor as influential as they once were. Certainly it is not difficult to find evidence of a commercial decline and a decline in readership and viewing figures.
Between 1992 and 2006, national daily readership reduced in this country by around a fifth, and the same is true for the Sunday newspapers. At the same time television viewing has also declined, with younger people in particular turning away. It should be added that the same is true in the United States. Newspapers there ended 2007 with an 8.4 per cent drop in daily circulation, and a decline of 11.4 per cent in Sunday circulation compared with 2001. The decline in US television news viewing is just as dramatic. Ten years ago the three big US networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, all expected an average news audience of approximately 10 million; now they each attract between 6 million and 7.5 million.
A complaint on both sides of the Atlantic is that more and more advertising is moving to the internet. The traditional news-gathering companies are seeking to adapt, but are struggling to make a profit from the internet. One of the more disturbing findings in our report is that this is leading to widespread editorial economies and a reduction in the service that the public once received. Foreign news bureaux have closed down, investigative teams have been disbanded and specialist correspondents have been cut. There is more reliance on news agencies and public relations handouts. The argument is that the internet is taking over and that in such a situation, why spend time devising special measures to regulate the traditional media whose day has probably gone?
We do not accept that argument because the figures show clearly that the traditional media are still an enormous influence in this country. It may be right that newspaper circulations have generally fallen, but they remain at around 20 million people reading a newspaper every day. It may be true that television news viewing has reduced, but again people watch on average around 90 hours of news a year on terrestrial television. The new forms of media have developed phenomenally, but it remains the case that two-thirds of the public still say that television is their main source of news, 14 per cent say that newspapers are the main source, 11 per cent say it is the radio—what we would do without the “Today” programme? Noble Lords are not required to answer that question—and only 6 per cent cite the internet. Anyone who thinks that the traditional media no longer have influence might remember that last week a dispute over a programme on Radio 2 eclipsed the biggest economic crisis since the war and provoked interventions by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition.
None of this is to say that the internet is not very important and that it and other means of communication have not had an effect. Some have benefited the traditional media. When I was a reporter in the 1967 Middle East war, there were two possible ways of getting the news out, by phone to a copy taker in London—but the line could be cut off—or by taking the story to the cable office where it had to pass the eyes of the official censor. When my stepson reported the Iraq war he was able to communicate directly with his paper either through the internet or with his global phone. No one doubts that there are many more platforms by which the news can be delivered. What is more questionable is whether that has led to a proportionate increase in investigative journalism and companies originating news. Companies such as Google and Yahoo do not gather news; they are basically indexers enabling the public to be guided towards news stories provided by other companies. And who is that news provided by? It comes from traditional newspapers such as the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, and of course from the BBC. Equally, the big internet players like AOL and MSN do not find their own news; they rely on news agencies.
I do not accept the case that the development of the new media has in some way has in some way invalidated the case for special rules for the traditional media. We cannot do a great deal about the past and the consolidation that has taken place, but we can at least ensure that the public interest is protected in the future and that our media are not controlled by even fewer companies. Our report makes a number of proposals in this respect.
The Communications Act 2003 was deregulatory in its approach and lifted many historical limits on media ownership. However, to ensure that the public interest was protected in the new deregulated environment, this House—the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is in his place—designed the public interest test, which is an incredibly important part of the legislation. It is there to ensure that no single voice becomes too powerful. Our recommendations are aimed at making that public interest test as independent, robust and streamlined as possible. We are concerned that the criteria in the test against which mergers are judged need to be reviewed and amended, and we make proposals to that end.
I want to add one point. There are concerns about regional and local newspapers because their advertising income has been particularly hard hit by the internet and by the financial crisis. Here we have proposed a significant relaxation in present regulation concerning local cross-media ownership. We see no reason why they should not be able to take over local radio stations. Subject to public interest considerations, we saw no need for specific cross-media ownership restrictions at the local level.
But we have an even more fundamental point to make. We have had regulations in the past, and the rules have sometimes worked and sometimes not. We would be entirely foolish to rely on regulation if the aim of policy is to have as wide and as good news provision as possible. In that respect, Britain has one very substantial advantage. We have a system of public service broadcasting which provides news coverage that is both independent and of high quality. The BBC is not the only public service broadcaster, but it is certainly the main one.
Here, I want to now say something which just now is extravagantly controversial: I am an admirer of the BBC. I think we would be literally mad to turn our backs on it and allow it to be undermined. Obviously I and the committee have our criticisms of aspects of policy, to which I shall come, but our basic stance is a respect for the high standards of the BBC, particularly in the area with which we are concerned of reporting of news and the breadth of its coverage. Against the trend, the BBC reports from overseas with the authority of foreign-based correspondents and specialists and does not rely, as so many others do, on agencies or reporters acting as firemen, to be flown in only when there are crises. For those who doubt, they should check on the BBC’s reputation abroad—the World Service certainly, but not only the World Service. It was striking in our United States trip how many senior figures in the broadcasting world there paid tribute to the BBC and the high standing of reporting it maintained.
We put reporting the news as the first priority of the BBC. In our report we noted Jonathan Ross’s comment that he was worth 1,000 BBC journalists. It is to be hoped that that was intended as a joke—it is about as good a joke as his latest one—but it raises a fundamental point. If there was a choice, I know what my choice would be: it would be to choose for the journalists. The point is that people like Mr Ross can be afforded only once the public service duties such as news and current affairs have been financed. Our report, written long before the present controversy, is sceptical about the size of the pay packets given to some entertainers. I think it is an own goal for the BBC: it gives the impression that it is swimming in cash and gives ammunition to the critics of the BBC and of the licence fee. Sometimes the BBC behaves as if it has no enemies when in fact, out there, it has several who are very powerful, very influential and very determined. It should take note of that.
The BBC needs to find some new mechanism to decide these massive salary packages which dwarf anything paid to the executives. Although their salaries are determined by special remuneration committees, that is certainly not the case with entertainers. However, I would add in parentheses that the review of payments might also include the salaries awarded to those top executives. It is open to question whether 25 executives funded by the public should have salaries greater than the Prime Minister.
The public will not have been encouraged by the way in which the corporation and those executives handled the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross case over the past two weeks. When speed was required we had delay; when action was required we had prevarication. I believe that this points to a fundamental fault in the top organisation of the corporation. In 2005, the predecessor body to this committee—the Select Committee examining the BBC charter—said it would be much simpler and much more effective to have a chairman and a board governing the BBC with Ofcom dealing with the complaints, as it does for other broadcasters. Instead we have an extraordinary hotchpotch. We have a chairman of the BBC Trust who is a regulator and can use the title “chairman of the BBC” only as an honorary title; we have an executive board with non-executive members; and we have complaints like the present ones which go to both the BBC Trust and Ofcom and other complaints which are exclusively the preserve of the BBC Trust.
Apart from its confusion for the public, this stands in the way of swift and certain action. It is also difficult for a chairman, who is first and foremost a regulator holding the balance, to argue wholeheartedly the BBC case at a time when everyone agrees that the debate on the future of public service broadcasting has never been more important. Above all, it means that the important and supportive relationship between chairman and chief executive is absent. My hope remains that all this can be revisited and I am interested to see that others are now beginning to take the same view.
However, public service broadcasting is not only a question for the BBC. The committee wants to see the continuance of public service broadcasters such as ITV, Channel 4 and Five, with ITN and Channel 4 News providing competition for the BBC. We regard the decision by ITV radically to reduce its regional programmes as a retrograde step and we are well aware that there are other bigger issues and problems ahead. The switchover from analogue to digital means that the implied subsidy for companies such as ITV and Channel 4 will disappear. That will leave them with a financial black hole and the Government will have to decide whether they should be supported in some other way or whether they are content to see them fade away.
We believe that public service broadcasting cannot be left only to the BBC and we propose for consideration a number of ways in which help can be given. For example, the present £600 million scheme financed by the licence fee to help people with switchover to digital is likely to be underspent—I hope it is. Any residual funds left over could be used to support the commercial public service broadcasters. Equally, it is sensible that Ofcom should look to see whether the present regulations on ITV—a case that I see Michael Grade putting again today—unreasonably constrain its commercial hands and whether it is feasible that the other companies should share BBC facilities. In our report we are cautious about top-slicing further the licence fee—for, of course, digital switchover is a form of top-slicing—but we will continue to review the issues.
At the start of my speech I paid tribute to the witnesses who came to give evidence to our committee. It is fair to say that not all were as willing as, for example, the chairman of the BBC, the chairman of ITV or, for that matter, Mr Rupert Murdoch. I am glad to say that Mr James Murdoch has also stated his willingness to give evidence to future inquiries of the committee. One or two needed some persuasion, including Rebekah Wade, the editor of the Sun, who, when she came, turned out to be an absolute star performer, although we were not entirely convinced that, as she claimed, she and she alone was responsible for the political stance of the Sun given the evidence of her own proprietor.
However, one proprietor—Mr Aidan Barclay, the chairman of the Telegraph—did not come. I wrote four times and four times he declined, offering only a private off-the-record interview in his office. This is now a matter for the Procedure Committee, which has said that it takes very seriously the committee’s concerns and is discussing improvements in the system of calling witnesses. I have no wish to personalise this as a dispute with one man. As I said, others—curiously, all in the newspaper world—were reluctant to appear too.
I would, however, make a general proposition about the media. As I said at the start, the media generally and newspapers in particular are there to expose. That is also their claim, and it is an important claim in a democracy. Doubtless at times they expose private lives; doubtless at times they overstep the mark. But also at times they serve the public interest, as when the Sunday Times exposed the thalidomide case. The Philby case was also exposed by newspapers. Their position is that they have a right to ask questions and to expose the truth, and it is a right that I strongly support. That is the essential claim of a free press in a democracy. But people who live by that claim cannot then turn round and say, “But you cannot ask questions of me”. It is a defence which is simply not open to those who own or work for the media.
As well as a politician, I was once a journalist. I need only to become an estate agent to have done the three most unpopular jobs in this country. I notice how many people say today that the media do not meet the same standards as they once did. I do not agree with that. If you look at my old paper, the Times, it is more interesting, better written and better laid out than it was in my day, and I say the same about much of the British press. If you look at television news or listen to radio news, again, it is better. It is certainly nothing like as deferential as it once was, and that is a good thing too, while the internet provides a whole new range of opportunities in bringing news to the public.
Rupert Murdoch told us in New York that the media are in a state of flux, and he is right. They face severe financial pressures, and like any other industry they must be allowed to compete. However, we should not be stampeded into making changes that would for ever restrict the ownership of the news in this country. That also is important. The worst thing would be if the media became dominated by even fewer players than they are today. That would not be in the public interest. I beg to move.
Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Communications Committee on the ownership of the news (First Report, HL Paper 122).—(Lord Fowler.)
My Lords, I welcome this debate on an important report on an important issue. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, both for his chairmanship of the committee that produced it and for his introduction to this debate. In fact, he has covered the issue so well that I am not sure what he has left for the rest of us to do.
I welcome my noble friend the Minister to his first debate in this House. He brings an expertise to the job that I think most of us welcome, because he has been involved in the area of communications for a long time. If I resent him for anything, it is for the fact that he makes me feel very old and is lowering the average age of the House.
I am in some difficulty on this. There are some aspects of what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said and what is in the report that I agree with, but I make it clear that there are aspects that I do not think go far enough. The first thing that I disagree with the noble Lord on is the coverage of the Ross-Brand affair. We heard much during our inquiry of the need to maintain the highly skilled and balanced investigative journalism that we have in this country. As someone on the committee who has no employment past either as a journalist or within the communications industry, I always had doubts about whether such an animal had ever existed.
My suspicions were fully confirmed last week when the media went collectively mad over the Ross-Brand affair. What that pair of so-called comedians did was wrong and unpleasant, but the totally over-the-top reaction by most of the British media, including the BBC itself, was close to absurdity. So-called serious newspapers, such as the Times and the Guardian, used most of their front pages to tell this non-story, while the BBC headed its main news bulletins with lengthy coverage of it, as long as six or seven minutes. This was when the US elections were reaching their climax—and I take the opportunity to congratulate President Obama on his overwhelming election—the credit crunch was still going on, anarchy in the Congo was just beginning and there was an earthquake in Pakistan that passed almost totally unnoticed. It was not the best example of the British media.
The report deals, in depth and with insight, with the present ownership of British national, regional and local newspapers. It also deals well with the news provided by the main five public service broadcasters, both their national news bulletins and their regional output. Of course that is right; as the noble Lord has said, many people still buy and read newspapers and therefore who owns them is of importance in a democracy. It is, however, perhaps of particular importance to the generation represented in this House. Equally, many of our generation still wait until 6 pm or 10 pm to get the BBC or ITV news. Therefore, how those organisations maintain impartiality and how their public service commitment is carried out also remain important.
In a democracy, where the media are an important part of the democratic process, who owns or controls the news is still very relevant, so much so that there are those who, like me, would argue—following on to some extent from what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said—that those parts of the media that are publicly funded in any way should be subject to the same freedom of information legislation as other publicly funded people are. I know that most of the committee do not agree with me on that, but it seems to me that if John Humphrys is allowed to know the expenses and everything else of people in Parliament, civil servants or whoever, then so should the public know what he earns. He is an important part of the democratic process and should be involved.
Having said that about the media, I wonder how many of us now really wait on a Saturday afternoon—I shall use football terms—to find out how our team has got on. We certainly do not wait to find out the result in the paper on Sunday morning, as we used to have to do. We probably do not even wait until we listen to a news bulletin, which will likely not give the score anyway. If a major story is breaking, do we wait until we read the newspapers to find out the latest news? Of course there are those who do and many of my colleagues tell me that the traditional news sources therefore remain of paramount importance. Yes, newspapers are still read, but they are now more likely to be read for comment and views rather than for news. As Tony Blair, our previous Prime Minister, said, they are becoming “viewspapers”, not newspapers. That may be worth while, but it is not about news itself. To cite a small example, yesterday in the Library I looked at the front page of the Herald, the Glasgow-based Scottish paper. There simply was no story on that front page that I had not already heard or read elsewhere. So while the report is good, it deals with the past and present. It does not say enough about the future.
Younger people—that is, almost anyone younger than most of us here—have access to an enormous range of information, including news. We live in an information-rich society. The public have access to sources of information that were undreamt of when I was a young man or even when I first entered politics. In the past 100 years, we have gone from being entirely reliant for our news on a few newspapers—remember, even they are mainly less than 150 years old—to a world that has radio, television and, perhaps above all, the internet. I know that my colleagues will say, “He will talk about the internet; he is always talking about it”. You can read almost any newspaper in the world online, find out any piece of information and, yes, keep up with the very latest sports results.
I accept that, in a rapidly changing technological world, those who try to predict the next breakthrough are likely to get egg on their face. However, some things that are going to happen in the future we already know about. Within four years the switch from analogue to digital television will be complete. Then, every household that has a television, which is nearly all of them, will have access to at least two 24-hour news channels—the BBC, probably Sky and possibly one more—as well as the continuing news services on the main channels. They will also have access to many more radio stations than they do at present. Already more than 70 per cent of households, before the switchover becomes mandatory, have digital television.
Many of those people—the figure is close to 70 per cent—also have access to the internet through broadband connections. Companies such as Virgin, Sky and BT increasingly offer bundles that include television, broadband internet access and telephony. As a result, users can obtain news from an enormous number of local, national and international websites. Last night, I was able to watch on my laptop computer at home coverage of the US elections from US websites rather than being dependent on British newspapers, radio or even the BBC. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, wants to see the BBC employing people abroad. I may differ with him on that, as it seemed that every bar and party in the United States last night was manned by some BBC reporter—I gather that almost 100 of them were over there covering the election. I did not need to watch that; I could watch and read about it in other ways from a variety of sources.
The major issue must be to ensure that everyone has the same access. I again disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in hoping that, if the Government decide to top-slice the BBC licence fee after 2012, that money will go towards ensuring that all households have broadband access rather than subsidising other television channels. That would be a much more useful way of ensuring that people have access to the news.
I shall suggest one or two ways in which access to news will be increased enormously during the next few years; although this debate is not time-limited, I do not want to spend a lot of time on this. People will say that the internet is limited and that you have to go to and turn on a computer to watch it. The next step—it is in a comparatively early stage of development, but the technology exists—is for the user wirelessly to access the internet through their television set. You will be able to watch almost any television programme or news bulletin from around the world, as well as look at specific news websites. You will be able to read newspapers, not just from this country but from elsewhere, from the comfort of your lounge and not from a seat in front of a computer screen in some less comfortable part of the house.
We are beginning to see also the development of electronic books, which look like books, are the same weight as books and whose pages do not glare at you as does a computer screen. With these devices, you will be able to download newspapers from the internet as you sit on your train or bus, or where you would normally read a newspaper or book. I know that some people shake their head and say I am way out on this, but I believe that it is going to happen.
More people are using mobile phones to get their news. When I am abroad, I do not have to find an internet café or watch Sky News on a television; I can simply go to the BBC website on my mobile phone and see exactly what is happening in the UK. I certainly do not wait until the following morning to buy yesterday’s newspaper to get the news.
Thus we already live in a world where most people have access to news from almost anywhere in the world. They will also have access at a very local level, whether it is to their local council, their local sports club or their children’s schools’ websites. News will be very local or national, but it will not be dependent on the traditional news sources.
Of course, some important questions are raised. First, while we have this enormous wealth of information and news, is there any evidence that people are better informed or read more news? Secondly, even if the evidence suggests that they are not and do not, should it be our concern? It is the responsibility of government and Parliament to ensure that everyone has access to as much information as possible, but it is not our responsibility to try to make them use it. When people need news that either they consider important or affects them personally, they will seek it out.
In a democracy, we would like all our electors to be well informed by balanced media. I do not believe that that has ever been the case. As a politician, I have never noticed that the media are particularly balanced; they are more likely to give one side of the argument. Indeed, most people in a democracy are more informed than in the past. Their number will continue to grow. The ownership of existing sources of news is still important, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, but control of the new platforms that are developing, will spread and will become increasingly important to younger people in particular, is largely outside the control of this country—it will be in the USA. The platform, rather than news source, will be important. I do not know whether we will ever be able to come to international agreements to control it or, indeed, whether we should.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Communications Committee report. I add my thanks to those offered to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for the expert way in which he guided the committee through its various stages. Possibly his most difficult task arose on our trip to America when, on a visit to the Washington Post, we were being led to a committee room to do some serious discussing about the future of the news and we learnt that Brad Pitt was being given a tour of the newsroom only a few feet away. There was mutiny in the air but the noble Lord managed to get us all into the committee room, and none of us caught a glimpse of Brad Pitt.
I also welcome the Minister—the more Carters in this House, the merrier. The inquiry was held against a backdrop of multiplying numbers of news platforms, the ever-increasing ways of accessing news and declining advertising revenue. Alongside that is a perception that the provision of news on television and in newspapers is in decline. Within this decline, foreign news reporting and investigative journalism are particularly hard hit. As we state in the report,
“The proliferation of news sources”—
which the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, so eloquently discussed—
“has not been matched by a corresponding expansion in professional and investigative journalism”.
In the area of television, public sector broadcasting is under threat. I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company, but also as someone with insider knowledge, having worked for many years making PSB television for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. We on these Benches believe that it is essential that public service sector broadcasting is preserved, that it is free at the point of use and that there is choice for the consumer.
During the past week, as both the previous speakers have mentioned, we have seen the BBC come under sustained attack because of the unacceptable behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The fact that the BBC is funded by the licence fee, a levy on the public, means that it must respond immediately when that public are upset about what is being broadcast. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that politicians and the rest of the press went over the top. It is important to work out what went wrong and ensure that it does not happen again. That means that we understand, as the Guardian pointed out last week in a leader, that,
“The BBC is a universal broadcaster but does not serve a nation with universal tastes”.
We should all think long and hard about what will happen to many of the wonderfully innovative BBC programmes if producers are no longer prepared or allowed to take risks.
We were told on our trip to America by many in broadcasting, newsprint and politics how lucky we were to have the BBC as a cornerstone of public service commitment. What is happening in the US is a cautionary tale. We held meetings with senior vice-presidents of the three network channels; they are all facing serious problems with declining audiences for their evening news programmes. There is a practical reason for this downturn, alongside the competition posed by cable channels and the internet, which is the time at which the news is broadcast. The people it is aimed at are working longer hours, with longer commutes, and they do not get home in time to tune in to the evening news. But in America there is no possibility of rescheduling because advertising slots in peak time are too precious. The market rules, despite the fact that Mr Slavin from ABC told us that if this group continues to turn away from the evening news, it is not inconceivable that it will disappear altogether. Here, we have the admirable Channel 4 News at seven o’clock and news on BBC, and now again on ITV, at 10. This accessibility and plurality must be maintained.
Mr Murdoch, whom we also met, does not think that we are lucky to have the BBC but, then, his favourite broadcaster is Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News. Mr Ailes told us that his definition of news was that it should be new. So, for instance, Fox News did not cover the events at Abu Ghraib prison unless something previously unknown emerged. It was showing liberal bias to do otherwise. Mr Murdoch told us that he wished Sky News here would follow the Fox philosophy. He also said that nobody at Sky listens to him. That demonstrates exactly how lucky we are to have the BBC and how crucial it is, at a time when PSB is under threat, that we respect its independence and guard the licence fee.
Ofcom has suggested that research it recently conducted demonstrates that we overemphasise the connection in the public’s mind between the licence fee and the BBC. But when people were presented with a list of all TV services and asked what the licence fee paid for, 87 per cent said the BBC. To me, that suggests a pretty strong connection. It might, of course, help the 13 per cent who did not make the connection if the BBC put its name on the licence we receive.
We on these Benches believe, as does the report, that topslicing the licence fee would undermine the ability of the corporation to do what it does best. We are also concerned that if Channel 4 were to take public money, its unique independence would be compromised. However, the BBC must fulfil its obligations. Last October, the Director-General announced a series of cuts to news. He told us that the BBC can deliver the same or higher quality of journalism with somewhat fewer people. This may be so in some areas but not all of them.
I used to be a producer on “Newsnight”. At the 2007 MacTaggart lecture, Jeremy Paxman said:
“On Newsnight … over the last three years we’ve been required to make budget cuts of fifteen percent. We have lost producers, researchers and reporters. Nor can we make the films we once made … and I cannot see how the programme can survive in anything like its current form if the cuts are implemented”.
That rings true to me, and I think it shows on the screen. High-quality news programmes are central to the BBC’s PSB remit. It makes cuts to its news operation at its peril.
The multi-channel landscape of the digital future poses particular problems and challenges to the commercial public service broadcasters. The BBC should not become a monopoly supplier of PSB and, according to Ofcom, that view is held by 86 per cent of the public. Plurality of public service broadcasting must be an aim of public policy. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that if money is left over from the digital switchover targeted assistance programme, it should go to help the commercial PSBs.
The other suggestion is that the BBC offers practical partnerships to the commercial public service broadcasters. It seems to have responded very positively to this, offering to share facilities and expertise. That must be properly acted upon rather than being just words.
It is not just broadcast journalism that is facing problems. The newspaper industry has seen readership numbers fall and the loss of advertising revenue to the web. As with television news, cuts are being made across the industry, particularly in investigative and foreign journalism. We agree with the report that the public interest consideration for newspaper mergers and broadcasting across media mergers should be amended to refer specifically to a need to establish whether a merger will impact adversely on news gathering.
However, we should not be dismissive of the journalism of the internet. It has been hailed as vital to the process of democracy in America in the historic election we have just witnessed. It enfranchised swathes of people by enabling those who had laptops to access speeches, campaign ads and news broadcasts in their own time and repeatedly. While on our trip to the United States a year ago, only one story dominated the conventional media—the arrest of OJ Simpson for armed robbery. Suddenly a new story emerged. In Jena, Louisiana, people were marching against a perceived injustice. Six black students had been charged with assaulting a white classmate and were facing prosecution and jail. A fight occurred following an incident in which three nooses were hung from a tree in the high school grounds by white students the day after black students had sat under the tree. The story emerged not in the newspaper or on TV but through the internet. As the bloggers and citizen journalists spread the word, so did the protests. The story grew out of Jena and out of Louisiana, and thousands from across America converged on the town. That is a whole new way for news to travel.
There is a lot that is good about this world but it is not regulated, and people know this. They do not trust the news they get from it, as they do the news they get from newspapers, radio and television and, in particular in this country, the BBC. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said earlier, 65 per cent of the population identify television as their main source of news, with only 6 per cent citing the internet. In what Will Lewis, editor of the Telegraph, calls the world of multiple confusion, people need and want to access news from the traditional sources they know and trust. We do not agree with those who argue that the media ownership rules in this country are out of date now that there are so many news outlets from which to choose.
We believe it is still the case that consolidation of ownership in the media risks giving disproportionate influence to a small number of companies and owners, and that media ownership regulation must be maintained.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to welcome the Minister to your Lordships' House, to congratulate him on his appointment and to be present for the occasion of his maiden speech as a Minister. Many of your Lordships will, like me, have valued their exchanges with the noble Lord during his important reign as the first chief executive officer of Ofcom and will be looking forward to further exchanges with him in your Lordships' House.
Turning to our report, and in common with other members of the Select Committee who have spoken, I commend our very expert media chairman, together with his staff and advisers, for enabling us to open up a view of our field which is as penetrating as it is comprehensive. I have the impression that the Government’s response is rather narrower than that, focusing too exclusively on basic commercial considerations and taking insufficient account of the title of our report, Ownership of the News, and the need for diversity in that respect. I have a sneaking feeling that the Government’s response might have read rather differently had the Minister been in post at the time it was written.
It is certainly not in the public interest for diversity in the ownership of the news to be diminished, and still less desirable for it to be homogenised or, worse still, monopolised. We do not need to be reminded of the pressures that have been, and certainly still will be, working in that direction. The newspaper industry and the media generally are facing serious problems. Readership is falling, young people are turning to other sources of news, and advertising is moving to the internet. Newspapers and broadcasters have less and less revenue with which to support expert or specialist journalists, and still less to support a worldwide network of many of them.
I am only too aware of that as a result of the changes that have taken place since the days when I used to travel the world with my noble kinsman, when he was Foreign Secretary, with up to a dozen or so specialist journalists in the same RAF plane, including diplomatic correspondents, not just from the Times, the Guardian and the BBC, but from the Glasgow Herald, the Mail, the Mirror and the Sun. Today, all that seems to happen for most of the time is a chorus of press criticism of Foreign Secretaries for flying abroad at all. It is against that background that our committee drew attention to the fact that the proliferation of ways to access the news, alongside consolidation of ownership, had certainly not been matched by any improvement in journalistic results. On the contrary, all too much of the news has simply been repackaged from elsewhere.
In the USA—and we have heard a great deal about this already—we noted that the quality and range of television news had steadily diminished. This is, thankfully, still in contrast with the position in this country, where public service broadcasters continue to provide an invaluable wide and diverse range of home and overseas news. Ed Richards told us that for him the most significant, indeed crucial, statistic in New News, Future News, was that television news remains the primary source of news for two-thirds of the UK population. In that setting, the BBC plays a pivotal role and, as we point out,
“it is vital that nothing be done to diminish that role”.
Recent events which have already been touched on—I have in mind, of course, the disgraceful behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand—must underline, for the BBC, the folly of shooting itself in the foot. Moreover, if UK news standards are to be maintained, public service broadcasting competition in this area is also vital. As ITV/Channel 4 and Channel 5 and others find it increasingly hard to compete for internet-bound advertising, without the spectrum advantages of the past, our report makes it clear that other forms of funding will be needed to stimulate competition with the BBC’s news service, as in other public service broadcasting areas. However, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, I hope that the BBC can reassure us that it has no plans to topslice the licence fee for such funds. As our report says,
“the commercial public service broadcasters should not be supported at the expense of the ability of the BBC to do what it does best”.
Here I entirely endorse every word said by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, on the value of the BBC to this country, which goes well beyond our national boundaries.
A further issue that I should like to underline is the consolidation of media ownership, with its risk of disproportionate influence. Eight owners now dominate the national press, with that power increased by cross-media ownership, as most have holdings in other media enterprises, including regional and local news as well as TV and radio. Hence, Simon Jenkins’ view that the industry’s self-regulation remains inadequate is increasingly widely held. Even so, freedom of the press—and I acknowledge its considerable importance—is one reason why we are prepared, although only just, to tolerate the Press Complaints Commission as it is, even though it includes a number of influential journalists and has a decidedly limited remit.
Andrew Neil told us that,
“no newspaper group in this country, none, covers its own affairs well”.
Even so, with a spread of eight powerful press barons competing with each other, there remains at least some hope that, if some dubious activity is taking place in one group, another newspaper will air the issue. Dog sometimes does eat dog.
However, a very large question mark remains firmly on the agenda. Every current editor assured our committee of their freedom to investigate and write on any issue, But that was certainly not supported by the example of what actually happened when Andrew Neil, then editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, published articles alleging corruption in the Malaysian Government, just at the moment when Murdoch was hoping to persuade their Prime Minister to allow Star TV into their country. Andrew Neil soon became an ex-editor—and I think that that speaks for itself.
I come to the last issue I want to emphasise and, in particular, to ask the Minister and the rest of the Government to think again. The Communications Act 2003, as we all know, gave a far greater emphasis to consumer—that is, to technical and economic—issues than to those of the citizen, which, as chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission in the past, was an area I was particularly concerned with. I do not for a moment question the importance of those consumer interests that Ofcom has championed; indeed, I am rather more convinced of the value of what it has done than I was at the outset. In the rapidly changing IT world we have lived in since the Act was passed, it has become clear that it has needed to act fast and keep as much up to date as it can, with the fairly limited remit it was given by the 2003 Act in some respects. But undoubtedly that commercial emphasis has meant that content, very often and very much a citizen’s concern, has taken a back seat.
The decisions of the Content Board remain very much in-house. It was interesting that when the consumer council was first in existence, it seemed to have rather more publicity and gave us more information about what it was recommending to Ofcom than did the Content Board. As a result, the Content Board still has much less impact than it ought to have. Quite simply, it should be much more powerfully publicised. That is why it is so important, when a merger is being considered, that Ofcom should be given the power, as we recommend, alongside that of the Secretary of State, to initiate the public interest test. As we say, that sits more comfortably with its clear statutory duty to promote the interests of the citizen. I shall not go into the long battle that we have had on the blurring of the word “consumer” and “citizen”, because there has been repentance all round on that one.
To concede such responsibility would in no way remove the Secretary of State’s power to decide against any recommendation that Ofcom chose to make, but it would mean that any citizen’s issue that Ofcom considered important would quite definitely be aired publicly.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness’s most interesting observations on an area in which she took acute interest well before she came on to the committee, although she worried me and the learned clerk when she referred to her husband as her kinsman. There was some discussion as to whether that was actually the correct description. However, we all know who he is—a distinguished Foreign Secretary, as he was.
I join others in welcoming the Minister to his new position. If I may say so without embarrassing any of his predecessors, he is much more qualified to reply to this debate than one or two other Ministers whom we have had. He is also, I hope, much more qualified to contribute to policy because of his previous experiences. I hope that in a quiet moment, if he gets one, he will have the opportunity—I appreciate that he took over his responsibilities only very recently—to read our earlier reports, because there are items of merit in them.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler, who is an outstanding Select Committee chairman. I do not wish to embarrass him, but he is his own creature. Those who serve on the committee are pleased to serve on it and are doing a valuable job. I think the House will have heard in the power of his speech and in the range of his contributions not only his great personal experience in journalism but his wider interest in the subject and in the responsibility inherent in the ownership of the media. He has covered the water-front in his wise and powerful speech.
I have regarded membership of the committee as a learning process. I note—the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, would remind me pretty quickly if I did not—that we started this process 15 months ago, and some of the evidence that we took is pretty out of date now. Some of the things that happened at the time were technical, and some were financial, but they have advanced things in significant ways. I say unashamedly that when I first joined the committee I never used to get my news from BBC News online, but now I turn to it regularly as a much more immediate way of hearing the news. I can also choose what I want to hear and do not have to wait for the order of march that has been detected by some editor or producer, or perhaps wait for longer than I wish to, to hear the items in which I am particularly interested.
The quality and range of provision and the technical capabilities are growing enormously, and with them the challenges. There is the challenge of ownership, as my noble friend Lord Fowler has said, as well as the challenge of determining where the news is coming from and under whose oversight or influence it may be perpetrated, no matter on what channel or by what outlet, whether it is a news aggregator or one of the internet offerings of one sort or another. From where does the news actually originate?
It is very common for noble Lords—we all do it—to stand up and say how wonderful this House is. However, speaking as someone with some modest experience in government and some experience in the House of Commons, I think that this House is rather better placed at forming a committee of people of experience with a background or other involvement in the industry to address some of these issues.
The honest truth is that Members of Parliament, particularly Prime Ministers and members of Governments, have great difficulty taking a totally objective view of some of the issues of ownership when they are trying to persuade particular owners to continue their loyal support in coming elections. It is no secret—I have seen this myself, more as an observer than a practitioner—how successive Governments of different parties have been faced with these issues of ownership and have found it impossible to dismiss concerns about whether their decisions might impinge too seriously on the attitude of Mr Rupert Murdoch, who is the classic illustration of this, and on his publication.
As my noble friend said, we took fascinating evidence. I congratulated Mr Murdoch on the candour of his evidence to the representatives of the committee. However, he stated that he did not really interfere with the Sunday Times or the Times, although I think it is true to say that Andrew Neil, in his evidence, had a slightly alternative view and presented a slightly different version. He was also contradicted by a current editor. He also said that in the case of the Sun and the News of the World he was a more traditional proprietor. We then had the extremely engaging and sparky evidence of Rebekah Wade, who implied that the only thing that exercised him was the concentration on celebrities and that he was critical of the fact that the Sun spent too much time on them.
It should be recognised that the committee, which had difficult birth pangs in getting the House to agree to it, has a real role to play, and in the very important respects that I have outlined is significantly better placed to play it than the Commons is. There is a sense that the committee has a more independent view.
I entirely echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, has said about corporate governance at the BBC. My approach to this is entirely as a committed supporter of the BBC, which is one of the few real jewels in our national crown. It is important not only domestically but around the world, and is respected and admired. The most remarkable convert of all time was probably Mr Gorbachev, who at the time of the coup against him was President of the Soviet Union. He had been committed to trying to jam the BBC World Service, but in his moment of crisis at his holiday home in the Crimea, when he tried to find out what on earth was going on in the coup he turned to the BBC World Service as the one service that he trusted to produce an accurate account of the events. I make my comments against that background.
We set out very clearly in our earlier report our concern about the bizarre, compromised structure that had been established of the trust and the executive board of the BBC. As my noble friend Lord Fowler has instanced, Sir Michael Lyons, who is an excellent person in so many ways, is allowed only the honorary title of chairman of the BBC, if that is not confusing to the general public. I did not expect our criticisms to be justified quite so quickly by events. I was waiting for the first problem to arise that would put the new arrangements to the test. One only has to read the header of last week’s Times leader, which says:
“A Failure of Governance … The BBC Trust cannot ride two horses at the same time”.
More colourfully, Greg Dyke says in a Times article that,
“some of us have that ‘we told you so’ feeling”.
I am afraid that it may shock certain members of the committee to learn that they are described by Mr Dyke in the same article as,
“a motley collection of members of the House of Lords”—
what a way to describe the Select Committee, but I let that pass—
“academics, former BBC chairmen and directors-general who told everyone who would listen that the new system of running the corporation wouldn’t work”.
Ironically, I cannot fail to remember that the strongest defender of the BBC, Michael Grade, said in his evidence that the new system certainly would work. Within about four or six months of giving us that evidence, he had departed to ITV.
That leads on to the next point in our report. If the Government get another problem like this—if there is another crisis and the same sort of problems emerge about how it is being handled, who is responsible and how quick the reaction will be—the pressure to go back to a sensible, strong, unitary structure will be great. Of course, we cannot really do that because our other recommendation is that the BBC should be governed not under its charter but by an Act of Parliament. It might be slightly easier to move an amendment to an Act of Parliament or produce a new Bill, but with the charter’s fixed timeframe nobody can do much about it. We raised the issue of the Act of Parliament and the Government talk about it in their response, particularly in terms of parliamentary approval of the licence fee and the difficulties that they see arising. If, as now, you have a structure that does not work and is under such strain, there are wider considerations in this rapidly changing world for more opportunities to change it.
I also strongly agree with my noble friend Lord Fowler about the news media. He quoted Mr Rupert Murdoch talking about its chaotic state. Of course, Mr Murdoch had said that before we hit the credit crunch and the financial challenges that we currently face. There will clearly be even greater economies throughout the media—even more cuts of one sort or another. The news agency feed, the PR press release and the alternative sources of news that emerge will become increasingly prevalent.
Against this rapidly changing background, one of the real challenges now is the condition of the regional and local press, which is under enormous pressure. I have been watching the four major groups involved with interest. For one of them, the share price is now down to 5 per cent of what it was about three years ago. Our report said that, despite the pressure that they might face, the competition rules should still apply. I have seen reports in the past day that certain of the four major local groups are in discussion about how they might rationalise and harmonise some of their back-office activities as a way through.
However, there may be an argument for waiving the competition rules. Look at Lloyds TSB and HBOS, where the national interest, the challenges they face and the interest in maintaining those activities because of the importance of banks and building societies meant that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State announced that they would suspend the competition rules. I understand that a former chairman of the Competition Commission came to a recent all-party group in this House to say that that is all very well, but it does not rule out reassessing at a later stage, in happier times, whether Lloyds TSB and HBOS could then be referred back to the Competition Commission, even though they had been allowed to merge. You could reassess whether that merger had subsequently proven to be in the national interest in terms of effective competition in calmer times. If there was an argument for saying that some mergers might help to ensure the survival of the regional and local press, the Government might need to bear that in mind against the real challenges that they currently face.
I was unimpressed by the Government’s answer to our proposal that Ofcom should have the power to initiate the public interest test. We were not suggesting that that should replace the power of the Secretary of State to do so, but that Ofcom should have it as well. Of course, the Secretary of State will have to take the final decision. However, coming back to the difficulty of separating politics from executive decisions by the Government, it seemed that it would actually strengthen the Government’s position. If they were not referring something, and Ofcom did not think that it was necessary to refer it either but had the power to do so, it would underpin the Government’s position. The Secretary of State would still take the final decision, but on a much more transparent basis.
The Minister may not have been involved in the preparation of the Government’s reply. I hope that, if he is involved in future government responses, he brings some of his skills to bear and makes a rather better written reply than many government responses to Select Committees. They seem as dismissive as possible and pretty unsatisfactory. I hope that the Minister will look at that.
Reciprocal rights—for UK companies to have the same rights as we give to foreign companies operating in this country—came up in 2003. The Government said that they were taking steps to ensure that reciprocal rights were achieved. When we suggested that very little had been done and that an annual report on progress might be one way to keep up the pressure on the Government to work on this, what did we get? “We do not think that an annual report would be particularly helpful”. For the Minister’s maiden initiative of real decisiveness, taking a grip on his department—which we all encourage him to do—I say that that is not good enough as a response. If you are not going to make an annual report, at least set up some arrangement whereby a report is made to Parliament on an issue on which Parliament and Government are united, on which there should be reciprocal rights, and on which pressure from Parliament could help the Government to achieve objectives that they otherwise might not. I hope that the Minister feels able to act on that point, which would be of assistance to UK companies.
I strongly support my noble friend Lord Fowler in his coverage of the main issues of the report. I wish the Minister well in his positive and spirited reply to the debate.
My Lords, I have an unpleasant feeling that everything that needs to be said has been said. I am rather tempted to say that I agree with everything and sit down. That would probably be a great relief to Members of your Lordships’ House who are thinking about dinner, which is probably most of us. However, I fear that it would also be a discourtesy. First, it would be a discourtesy to my noble friend the Minister, who is here to give his maiden speech, to which we are all greatly looking forward. I join everybody else in welcoming him to his place. Secondly, it would be a discourtesy to our much esteemed chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. He is esteemed not only for his excellent chairmanship, but for the excellent way in which he set out the committee’s stall earlier in the debate. I have no wish to offend the noble Lord, so I am afraid that I am going to plough on. In doing so, I add my thanks to our committee Clerk, Chloe Mawson, and her team, who managed a particularly lively, perhaps even volatile, evidence-gathering process with great discretion and determination. We were also fortunate in having two excellent special advisers in Professors Steve Barnett and Mike Feintuck.
For me, coming to this inquiry with no background in news gathering or dissemination, the experience was salutary. Like the noble Lord, Lord King, I learnt a great deal more from it than I contributed to it. I learnt in the main about the pressures under which the purveyors of news, print and broadcast, have to work and about their changing priorities in a fast-moving environment. This is a matter of great concern to everybody, as was much mentioned by those who have already spoken. I said that I could have sat down having said that I agreed with everything that had been said, but that would not have been true, as I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Maxton. He will not be surprised by that because he thinks that I am a dinosaur and I think that he is an anorak, albeit a very high-class one.
Indeed, my Lords, as my noble friend rightly says from a sedentary position, we are probably both right. However, his view of this world of multiplicity within which information is available to anybody who wants to access it in many forms, including on mobile telephones, through a television, via the internet and so forth, is one that, although I understand the seductive nature of his description, none the less seems to me neither particularly desirable nor the one in which most people live.
As someone who is easily confused by the explosion of news sources, mainly driven by the internet, I found some aspects of what emerged from the evidence that we took a pleasant surprise. For example—this has been mentioned by other speakers—it is clear that there is still a relatively small number of trusted sources of news, among which the BBC and the broadsheet newspapers, whether they appear in print or online, still rank highly. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, mentioned this, as, indeed, did our esteemed chairman. Ofcom stated in written evidence to the committee:
“Television—particularly PSB evidence—is by some margin the main source of news for the majority of UK consumers … Among the TV providers, the BBC takes more than 50% of the television news audience … and ITV1 more than half the remaining audience”.
Evidence also shows that although the readership of paid-for newspapers both national and regional—freesheets are another matter, as the committee discovered—is much smaller than the audience for television news, those newspapers are still significant sources in terms of the trust that is placed in them.
This leads me to my main point. Despite all that we have been told, mainly by my noble friend Lord Maxton, but by others as well, about the growing influence of the internet, with its huge diversity of views, who owns or controls the conventional—my noble friend might say old-fashioned—sources of news remains a matter of undiminished significance in which, for the sake of democracy, we must continue to take an active interest because those people still wield enormous influence over the views of a majority of the population. Here I take issue with something that my noble friend Lord Maxton said as regards what people read newspapers for. He implied that newspapers are frequently out of date and that people read them for views and comment. It strikes me that views and comment are precisely what influence people to make the choices that they do, in particular the choices that they make that influence how they behave as citizens and how they exercise their democratic rights. Therefore, the news is surely more than just what happened.
Looking at the evidence—this was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—I was struck again by how anxious serving editors and current owners of newspapers were to reassure the committee that owners are not in any way involved in editorial decision-making. We even heard the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, volunteer that he and his board would be unconcerned if their editor decided to promote the legalisation of cannabis or entry into the euro, or even to back the Labour Party. There was a resounding noise of jaws hitting the floor at that moment.
Evidence was given by Ms Rebekah Wade, as has been mentioned by other members of the committee. She certainly won some hearts. I have to say that she did not entirely win mine, but there we are. Ms Wade attempted to persuade the committee that the interest of her proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in the content of her newspaper was limited to being,
“dismayed by the amount of celebrity coverage … particularly on ‘Big Brother’ for example”.
It is unfortunate for Ms Wade, as was mentioned by several other speakers, that the minute of the committee’s meeting with Mr Murdoch in New York—I am sorry to say that I was not present at the meeting, but I did read the minute—reveals a slightly different story. As we have been told, he makes it quite clear that he treats his most successful newspapers, the Sun and the News of the World, very differently from the way in which he treats the Times and the Sunday Times. His influence on them is constrained. None the less, he clearly said that he acts as a “traditional proprietor” in respect of the Sun and the News of the World. The minute continues:
“He exercises editorial control on major issues—like which party to back in a general election or policy on Europe”.
That is a direct quotation from the minute that the committee submitted of the meeting with him.
Mr Murdoch’s straightforward acknowledgement of his direct involvement in the editorial stance of those newspapers is rather refreshing in the context of so much convoluted denial from other people. Ex-editors who gave evidence, including Andrew Neil, who has already been mentioned, Andrew Marr and Dominic Lawson, presented the issue of ownership differently from their serving colleagues. Mr Neil was particularly forthcoming about the nature of the UK newspaper industry when he said:
“Our newspapers are dominated. Even when they are PLCs, even when they are quoted companies, they are essentially dominated by one individual ... in effect they are run like private companies. The Rothermere family controls The Mail and the Murdoch family controls the News International papers”.
He went on to say that the UK situation was significantly different from what prevails in Europe or North America, maintaining that,
“owners have never been as influential in America as their equivalents have been in this country”.
Andrew Marr made some trenchant remarks about the kind of interference from proprietors that, while not directly political, none the less influences the integrity of the output. This relates to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. Andrew Marr said that,
“the great danger for newspapers is that the reporting job, people out there finding stuff out and sticking it in the newspaper that you would not otherwise know is what is being cut and cut and cut”.
That is the kind of influence that was brought before the committee over and over again both in respect of newspapers and television. It is a serious matter.
This brings me back to the question of trusted sources of news, which are still very few in number, as I have said, even though they may manifest themselves in a variety of forms. The fact that they are so few makes the question of who owns and controls them even more important. The degree of access that those owners have to policy-makers is a matter of legitimate public concern, as the committee makes clear in its recommendations. The evidence received from Mr Alastair Campbell was illuminating on this matter. His description of the courting of Mr Murdoch and others by the Labour Party in opposition and subsequently in government—as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord King—was careful and measured but gave a clear insight into the importance attached by policy-makers to having the ear of newspaper proprietors. In this environment, the greatest possible diversity of ownership is one way of ensuring that what my noble friend Lord Puttnam—whom I am very glad to see in his place—in his evidence described as “cartel behaviour” does not get a hold. He rightly pointed out that the interests of the citizen, as opposed to the consumer—a distinction mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—are best served by what he called “plurality of input”, engendering,
“the ability to try to imagine issues and situations influencing and affecting your life”—
in other words, engaging with your duties and responsibilities as a citizen. I hope that the Government will recognise that fierce protection of this plurality of input will always be necessary and that they will maintain a regulatory regime strong enough to withstand pressure to downgrade the importance of diversity of ownership.
I cannot conclude without mentioning public service broadcasting, much mentioned in the debate so far and thrown into very unfortunate sharp relief last week by the BBC’s difficulties with Messrs Ross and Brand. Ofcom has not yet completed its review of public service broadcasting, but it is already clear that the commercial television companies are seeking to reduce their obligation to produce public service programming, including, crucially, news provision, local, regional and national. Some of that provision has already been cut back. The levers available to keep those commercial companies in the game are limited, as Ofcom’s interim report on the results of its consultation shows. For example, it states that,
“access to reserved spectrum will retain some value beyond the completion of digital switchover in 2012 ... but this will not be enough to sustain the current level of provision by ITV 1 and Channel 4 across a range of genres. The value of the ITV 1 licences will fall below the cost of their current obligations before 2012 with the result that ITV plc may have incentives to surrender those licences”.
This is a serious matter. The BBC, for all its present difficulties—I agree with a great deal of what has been said about the governance of the BBC—is a uniquely valuable resource. I would not want anything that the committee said or anything that might have been said in this debate to be used as ammunition against its continued support at a level sufficient to meet the very high expectations that we all have of it. However, as others have said, it should not be left to fly the public service broadcasting flag on its own. That would be bad for us and it would be bad for it.
Ofcom’s prediction to the committee that by 2012-13 the BBC will receive 91 per cent of all public service broadcasting funding is worrying, but the Government’s response to the report does no more than note that the issues are being considered by Ofcom and will be, at some unspecified point in the future,
“considered as part of the Government’s own consideration of the future funding arrangements for public service broadcasting in the UK”.
I rather hope that the Minister’s eagerly anticipated maiden speech will allow him to amplify that response a little. As has been said, he has special expertise and his contribution, not only to this debate but to the discussion of these issues in the future, will clearly be of enormous value.
My Lords, it is a very long time indeed since the committee first agreed to carry out the report. I recall that when we started it, the frontrunners in the American presidential election were Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, crunch was a breakfast cereal and banks were owned by private companies. In that time, we have produced a report of which we can be enormously proud.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord King, that in many ways it is the sort of report that only the House of Lords could produce. It has taken a very great deal of time and patience, and it is about having the ability to call and engage with witnesses at the level that we have done. As a relative newcomer to the arena, I was amazed at the willingness of journalists, proprietors and all sorts of organisations involved in news gathering to engage with the Select Committee. I was hugely impressed by the support that we got from our advisers and from the Clerks.
I say all that because there is a palpable sense of disappointment when one reads the government response. It does no service to the quality of the work that the Select Committee has done. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, who I, too, welcome today, will be able to bring a fresh eye to this and be able to treat the report with the respect that it deserves. I do not imagine that the Government would agree with everything in it, but there is so much detail here that it will not just serve as a useful starting point for policy now but, as years go by, it will be an interesting piece of academic work, because it sets out exactly where we are in an ever-changing environment.
When I was a child and thought about the news, it had a particular resonance for me, because everything stopped. There was one news bulletin that we all watched at around 6 pm, and woe betide you if you chatted during the news, because your parents had to wait another three hours before there was another news bulletin. I was reflecting yesterday about how different it is now and how, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, so graphically described, we are now surrounded by news. Even if you do not particularly want news, it comes at you through your car radio, or through vendors thrusting free sheets at you when you get on the Tube. It is superficially apparent that there is a lot more news about, but when you scrape not very far below the surface, you see that the mass has increased, rather than any sense in which the quality has increased. Our report highlighted well how the proliferation of ways in which the news comes to us simply has not been matched by an expansion in professional news gathering.
In private organisations, government departments, local authorities and hospitals, one of the burgeoning industries has been PR, which is growing to feed the insatiable demand for news; except that it is not news. It is produced by organisations with a partisan view and, to a large extent, it is often regurgitated wholesale by the recipients. From the point of view of citizens, it generates very little genuine new information. Given the starting point of the committee, which was the role that the news media plays in our democracy, this is about more than academic interest. The point that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, made about balanced views is really important, but you can get a balance of views only if you have a diversity of supply.
I have spent around 20 years working in and around local government and, like all noble Lords, I believe passionately in the idea of a vibrant and participative local government. Local news media have always played an important part in that. In many ways, the role of local media ought to be more important now than ever. As ties of community decline and people do not talk to each other so much as word of mouth declines, accessing local news through newspapers and radio ought to be more important now than ever. It is also the case that local authorities have changed the way in which they do things. We now have cabinets rather than committees; we have local strategic partnerships, and hospital trusts meet in private. It is difficult for citizens to get a sense of what is going on in their area.
Local media have consolidated in the same way but in many ways in an accelerated form. Something like 70 per cent of the local newspaper market share is held by just four companies. Some 55 per cent of radio listening is to the BBC, and the remaining is the commercial sector, produced by just four companies. Does that matter? The National Union of Journalists certainly thinks so. In its evidence, it talked about how local papers have become part of a,
“vehicle for profit making for shareholders”.
It sees that it results in a,
“widespread cutting back of formal reporting”,
and it goes on to describe how time pressures are forcing local journalists to put through copy that is lifted straight from the press release.
When I became a councillor, every committee and sub-committee was attended by a reporter. It may have been a junior reporter, but someone was always there to report to local people what was happening. That does not happen any more. The Newspaper Society put a rather more rosy gloss on things, as we would imagine. It gave evidence about how economies of scale, sharing back-office functions, and so on, were beneficial. Even here, we heard that there are knock-on effects. For example, printing newspapers further away from the location that they serve results in stories having to be filed a day early. That means that quite often journalists are reluctant to put in a breaking story, because they fear that it will be out of date by the time it gets printed; so they are printing different sorts of stories.
Local radio news has gone through many similar processes. When I was first elected to the council, I would regularly go on to talk to the local commercial radio stations, but their news now is all syndicated. The calls that I get now are from BBC Radio Suffolk. That is fine, but we have to consider whether we really want there to be just one source of local news. Being pragmatic, it may be that, particularly in the current economic climate, consolidation is the only way of keeping any local news at all. Maybe we just have to be pragmatic and accept that. Certainly, the financial outlook for the local print media and commercial radio stations is not good, given their reliance on advertising and the migration of advertising online.
It is partly for that reason that we recommended that the Government look again at the regulations governing cross-media ownership on a local level. It is rather counter to the general thrust of our report, which is more pro-regulation, but in this case the committee felt strongly that it will simply not be viable in some areas to sustain a minimum of three independent media voices all engaging in news gathering. We believe that if local mergers were subject to a public interest test, Ofcom could make these decisions on a case-by-case basis and reflect the different circumstances that pertain in various parts of the country.
In my childhood we moved around a lot because my father was in the air force. One of the things that gave me a sense of place and identity was watching the local news. Whether it was the Anglia knight or Mike Neville presenting “Look North”, I had a sense of place because of the television that I watched. That sense has been disappearing for some time now as ITV television regions have become larger and their commitment to producing local news has diminished. This leaves a problem, because the BBC is rapidly gaining a virtual monopoly on the provision of local news. As we have heard, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that makes it very difficult for ITV, and the commercial constraints make it difficult for it to produce local and regional news. There is a decision for us to make as a society—whether we think it acceptable to have a single source of local news, in other words the BBC; or whether we have to find mechanisms for keeping some competition in the system. Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I believe that it would be better for the BBC and the public if there were checks and balances through a multiplicity of provision. The Government will certainly have to look very closely at the governance of the BBC if we are to go further down the road of it being the only provider of local and regional news.
Michael Grade, in his evidence to us, was very honest about the fact that he thought the days of local and regional television were numbered. He saw the future solution as the rollout of a broadband service using ITV Local. He may be right in that, and the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, would certainly agree. However, the broadband service must be improved. Where I live in Suffolk the broadband service is not good enough to receive that news, and we are a long way from it. Where I disagree with the noble Lord is that this is not an either/or situation. If money is put into providing broadband but there is no money to gather the news in the first place, then having the broadband is irrelevant.
That brings me to my final point, which is at once simple and infinitely complex. We are all agreed that there are many news platforms, but we come back to the question of who pays to gather the news. It is not cheap to collect news, particularly international news. Someone has to pay for it. If advertising revenues are falling and people are reluctant to pay by subscription and do not want to pay the licence fee, there is a question about how important we as a society think independent newsgathering is and how it is to be paid for.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate. It was originally programmed for last week and I would not have been able to participate, so I begin by thanking those who changed the timing—which, I fear, was an inconvenience to almost everyone else. Like other noble Lords on the committee, I have very much enjoyed our work preparing this report and seeing the titanic struggle between the noble dinosaurs and the noble anoraks. We have produced a conclusion which commands, in very general terms, the support of all of us. That is an interesting and worthwhile reflection on our work. I, too, welcome the Minister to this House and his maiden speech, although I fear that I will be disappointed, because, by convention, he is not allowed to say anything controversial. There will always be another occasion.
I should declare an interest as the non-executive chairman of the Cumbrian Newspaper Group, which owns local newspapers and radio. I do not wish to say anything about that, other than the fact that those sectors are under the financial cosh and are vulnerable to regulatory decisions which put them under more financial pressure.
Like many of the contributors to this debate, I have been involved in the media and politics, which enjoy a rather curious and slightly incestuous relationship. For me, my involvement in politics almost entirely preceded my involvement with the media. I can now fully understand why so many of my press releases about Europolitics were “spiked”.
It is a truism, although it may be slightly pompous, to say that the freedom of the press is a precondition of a responsible democracy and political process, but it is not any the less true because of that. It is equally true that checks and balances are important underpinnings of our liberties and freedoms and should have a proper place in the way in which we regulate the kind of topics that we are debating. Moreover, for journalism and the media properly to fulfil what I might describe as their civic function, news must be recognised as being not merely facts, but must cover comment and views which, after all, will inevitably be at best coloured and at worst partisan. Without that explanation, the facts may not make much sense to those who have them.
As we know, all those news and views are delivered to our fellow citizens by a range of increasingly varied instruments of communication, including newspapers, TV, radio and the internet. None is an exclusive means or conduit of communication to the wider world. When we look at the topics that we are discussing from a political perspective, from the House of Lords or government, it is terribly important to recognise the essential wholeness of the various means of communication, because although they are very different, and it is all a muddle, there is homogeneity across the whole scene.
No doubt, as with so much in this country, if we were starting from scratch to provide a legal and regulatory context to the provision of news, we would certainly not design it in the way we have. That is the starting point for discussing many United Kingdom institutions and systems. It is also important to recognise that if these means of communication are privately owned, they are likely, at least to some extent, to reflect the emphasis of the person who happens to own them. After all, that is a legitimate and inevitable consequence of ownership.
In that context, I ask the Minister what the Government’s line would be if a sovereign wealth fund, particularly one from a country which was not necessarily well disposed to ours, bought a UK national newspaper to advance its case. It seems obvious that proprietors of newspapers, whoever they are, do not appoint editors who are likely to organise that newspaper against the wishes of the owner, although the newspapers may not necessarily reflect the owners’ political views—although they might. The relationship between proprietors and editors does not depend on the issuing and receiving of detailed instructions from on high; rather, as I think I put it to Dominic Lawson, it is more like the relationship between a football manager and his chairman. At the end of the day the relationship depends on a paper being produced in a manner that gives satisfaction to whoever happens to be the proprietor. That involves fulfilling a financial and an editorial remit.
Also, if we are considering the nature of the relationship between the media and their owners, it is important to recognise that, while it is often supposed that the owner of any part of the media may wish to influence government, it may be in the interests of the proprietor, particularly if they have a wide range of other interests, to align themselves with the person whom he or she thinks is likely to be successful in the immediate future to safeguard their other interests.
Against that general background in the media world, it is right that there should be a number of legislative and regulatory rules to deal with potential problems and mischiefs. First, media companies are just like any other company, they are businesses. We have in this country antitrust rules and a competition authority which deals with that aspect of activities. I do not see why the media should in any way be outside that general system. Secondly, we know that in the interests of plurality of voice, there is a public interest test to ensure that there is no undue concentration of sources of news and information, in terms of the kind of message given to our citizens, which would undermine the ability to have free debate—a precondition of a free society.
Finally, particularly since the advent of television and radio, we have introduced into our media world a series of benchmarks in order to provide truth, accuracy and impartiality in the provision of news. That is important because it provides a basis from which comment can then be evaluated. Of course, in this context, carrying out this role is one of the major responsibilities of our public service broadcasters. Indeed, if we look at the regulation of broadcasting in this country, we see impartiality rules that go beyond the normal definition of public service broadcasters. Although I suspect that very soon we may see considerable changes in the public service broadcasting world, it is vital that this role, as the benchmark of impartiality and accuracy in the provision of news, is preserved and carried forward into what I suspect will be a very different picture in not many years to come. I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and others who have said that this cannot be left to the BBC alone; there must be a plurality as much in the provision of impartial news as in any other aspect of what is being delivered across our airways and down our fibre-optic cables.
As I touched on a moment ago, in terms of general antitrust policy, it seems to me that media companies are no different from everyone else and, in that regard, they should be regulated by the competition authorities. I believe that plurality and impartiality should come within the role of Ofcom. I, like a number of other speakers, think that the idea that the BBC charter somehow safeguards its status is basically an outdated and romantic anachronism. After all, it was quite easy to sling out a large number of Members of your Lordships’ House by one Act of Parliament. I should have thought that, if you can do that, you should be able to change the BBC charter by an Act of Parliament without any trouble at all. I also agree with earlier speakers who suggested that the BBC’s current bicameral system—if I can put it that way—is not working properly, and I hope that the Government will reconsider some of their response in that regard.
I also regret that the Government are still opaque, although they are more emphatic, in their attitude towards the initiation of proceedings to remedy problems, where they clearly hanker to be the sole initiator of the process of remedying wrongs where wrongs might exist. After all, one of the underlying ideas behind regulation in the areas that we are talking about is to deal with the mischief of monopoly. It seems to me that if there is a monopoly of enforcement, such a monopoly is potentially sensitive, and perhaps dangerous. I am sorry that the Government seem to be unwilling to countenance the idea that there should be a right to a shared initiative in the areas where Ofcom is involved, particularly in the public interest test. It is important that we do not forget that, in the area of criminal law, a decision on whether to prosecute is outside the Government’s direct control.
The report is concisely entitled, The Ownership of the News, although this might be a tease because, just like wild animals and birds, no one can own the news; rather, it is relatively easy for those who own the presentation and delivery of the news to distort, edit and colour it. It thus seems to me to follow that it is essential, as part of contemporary political life in this country, that there should be a number of those who supply the news, a plurality of voice among those who present the news, and a datum level of impartial news against which opinion and the wider provision of information can be assessed. Finally, there should be no monopoly in the ability to initiate enforcement of the rules, not least as, whatever their political complexion, Governments are parti pris in some way or another to almost all news that matters.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the House for allowing me to speak in the gap, and I am very conscious of the time constraints under which that places me. I feel as though I have crashed a private party, so I shall at least endeavour to bring a bottle.
I have three reasons for wanting to speak. The first is to welcome, and listen to the maiden speech of, my very good and much valued noble friend Lord Carter. We are very fortunate to have him take up this role at this point in the media cycle.
The second reason is to congratulate my noble friend—he is my friend—Lord Fowler for taking on the role of chairing this committee. A number of noble Lords in this Chamber fought very hard for the creation of the Communications Committee, most particularly the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. What I feel has been achieved is the legitimisation—in fact, the permanence—of this committee. I cannot imagine a situation in which the House authorities would decide that we could go on without a Communications Committee. That is an enormous triumph and I take my hat off to the noble Lord for achieving it.
The third reason is to quickly say something about the BBC. It was pointed out to me that 11 years ago today I had the privilege of entering your Lordships’ House. I want to try out a hypothesis on your Lordships. When I arrived here, I argued that there was overwhelming, and at the time relatively unconditional, support for the BBC. Equally, I argue that 11 years later there is still significant, but far from overwhelming, support for the BBC, and most of it is thoroughly conditional. That is not the fault of your Lordships’ House; the BBC should look long and hard at how this situation has been arrived at. I would argue that one reason is the BBC’s own ambiguities and contradictions, and its almost compulsive need to be seen to be doing everything. That is odd because the quality, breadth and range of its output—particularly its news output—have never been better.
Another problem is a very uneasy conflation of public purpose and commercial ambition. If the Government are to look at any one aspect of the BBC, it should be at beginning to unravel and untie that conflation. BBC Worldwide’s recent purchase of Lonely Planet set off a wholly unnecessary fire-storm. I do not know why it was felt necessary, but it has brought a lot of problems to the corporation, which it could unquestionably have done without.
The last thing that I want to say about the BBC’s problem is that it has to stop seeing its role as solely the defender of what it regards as its rights and understand that what we seek of it is a clear-eyed architecture of its own future. It must be the architect of its own future. I am afraid that I do not see that in any of the recent speeches of any of the senior members of the BBC—the director-general or even the chairman, both of whom I like very much indeed. They do not seem to have the breadth of vision to offer a future for the BBC. Their vision seems to be constrained entirely to defending where it is, what it is and giving up no ground whatever. I have never known any organisation successfully argue that position over a number of years.
I suggest that the Minister takes a good long look at the public purpose of the BBC and understands that, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is the gold standard that applies to all broadcasting. Sky News and ITN are as good as they are because of the BBC; it is our gold standard. At the same time, he should try to regularise, and give a coherent place in the totality of the UK’s media ecology to, the BBC’s public purpose role as against its commercial ambitions, which I think are doing it far more harm than good.
My Lords, I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, intervened in the gap. I am only sorry that he was not able to make a longer and more substantial contribution. I certainly count among the high points of my political life serving on the Puttnam committee—the pre-legislative committee that looked into the 2003 Act. As his time in this debate was constrained, perhaps I may add another contribution for him that I pulled out of the files. The noble Lord said that,
“when the public interest finds itself, even marginally, at variance … with the workings of the marketplace, the public interest test must be judged not as co-equal, but as being of paramount importance. For in the end, the achievement of ‘plurality and diversity’ is not just … the aim of this particular Government; it must be a core ambition of any plural democracy”.
I enjoy keeping that quote on file because it catches very much why I continue to keep an interest in media matters—it is important in the essence of our democracy.
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to his place. I was a little worried when my noble friend Lady Scott launched an attack on the PR industry. I am sure she had forgotten that both he and I have had distinguished careers in public relations. Perhaps she has also forgotten that the slogan of public relations is, “Give us the truth and we’ll varnish it for you”.
On the previous career of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, it is amazing just how much we accept and respect Ofcom. I was a member of the committee that looked at Ofcom before the legislation came in. There was great concern about creating an across-the-waterfront regulator with such responsibility. The fact that Ofcom is so respected has set the standard of research-based regulation and I believe it owes no little debt to the role played by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, as its first executive. I hope that he will be as innovative in his new job as he was when he took on Ofcom.
The noble Lord, Lord King, referred to the birth pangs of this committee, as did the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. It really was a struggle to get the committee established. I pay tribute to the persistence of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I like to think that if she is the godmother of the committee, I can think of myself as the godfather. I raise this point because the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, might be being optimistic. There is no guarantee that the committee will continue in the next Parliament. Its terms of reference are for the life of this Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said, it would be absolute lunacy to lose the committee, having regard to its track record and its future agenda of communications. I put that on the record so that, at the beginning of the next Parliament, we are ready to fight to ensure that the committee stays in place and continues its work.
I associate myself with the committee’s concern about the attendance of witnesses. As I am a member of the Procedure Committee and the Privileges Committee, I treat this matter very seriously. If appearing before Select Committees of Parliament became a matter of choice, the work of the committees would be fatally undermined. It is worth considering that if anyone did that in the United States, they would be put in jail. I think that both ends of Parliament should look very hard at an offence of contempt of Parliament for defying an investigation of a committee; otherwise, we will never have a committee system of Parliament which is given serious respect and authority, as we often want.
I think the Government’s response is pathetic. It is part of a line of government responses to committee reports, not just of this committee but others, and, as parliamentarians, we have to ensure that the Government treat reports, into which a great deal of work has gone and which deserve better consideration, with proper respect.
Many contributions have mentioned the reason why we regulate the media. I have gone through this with various media moguls and they have to understand that successive Parliaments under successive Governments have distorted the market. We are not in the business of guaranteeing an absolutely level playing field and a perfect working market. Why? Because Parliament realises that we are talking about an area of society which is not the same as selling beans, to use the usual cliché. We are considering how we talk to ourselves and to the world. Many speakers have emphasised that to do that we need to protect the public interest and to nurture and sustain one of the great gifts that we have inherited, which is the BBC and public service broadcasting.
I am well aware that we have moved into a new era. I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, before and he sounds very much like my 15 and 18 year-old sons. I was talking to my 18 year-old son about the United States election. He has been on chat rooms with American students talking about the issues in the election. They work in a different way from us. Nevertheless, as a number of speakers have made clear, the old systems, the print press and the major television companies, are still very important.
I strongly support the idea that Ofcom should be given power to initiate the public interest point, and the noble Lord, Lord King, put his considerable authority behind that. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that the business competition side is well covered by the Competition Commission and therefore the committee’s idea of a separation of powers makes a lot of sense. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, we had a lot of discussion about where the rights and responsibilities of the citizen and the consumer lay. I am pleased that this committee is much in favour of the citizen.
I reach the BBC. It must be reassured by yet another parliamentary debate in which speaker after speaker stands up and says that he will defend the BBC but, by gosh, it makes its friends’ jobs difficult. As somebody said, it must realise that it is not its own worst enemy; it has a hell of a lot of worst enemies out there. Why it plays into their hands, I do not know. The Ross/Brand affair involved two men who, although they do not know it, are fast slipping into middle age, aping teenage behaviour that I would not tolerate from my sons. It was rather sad. Perhaps Jonathan Ross might use his three-month sabbatical to read the biography of Simon Dee.
What the noble Lord, Lord King, said about the BBC Trust was spot on. Over 80-odd years the board of governors did not do too bad a job. It managed to sack director-generals, intervene when needed and, most of all, protect the BBC from interventions by politicians. It only broke down with an intervention that will remain a stain on the record of this Labour Government, who lost a very good chairman and a very good director-general in a political row. I hope that the new Minister will have a look at the committee’s suggestions about a statutory basis for the BBC and a system for its governance that will inspire more confidence than the present one.
I have now become chairman of the All-Party ITV Group. As with all all-party groups, it involves no financial benefit. The truth is that I became chairman of the All-Party ITV Group by arriving five minutes late for the annual general meeting. Nevertheless, I have always taken an interest in the diversity of our broadcasting. Last night, Michael Grade attended a meeting of the group. He spoke to Members of the Lords and Commons. There was a goodly turnout. There is strong parliamentary concern about the BBC’s plans for regional news and about losing one of the great strengths of ITV, its regional basis. I still remember the pride I took, especially when I was down at university in London, when up on the telly came “From the North, Granada presents”. It had regional pride, which is still important.
It is also important that we listen to Michael Grade’s warning. The regulatory regime that ITV finds itself in, coupled with the present financial circumstances, puts ITV in peril. We ought to make a proper and rapid judgment about how best we make sure that we keep what is best in ITV, which is, as Michael constantly emphasises, a £1 billion investment in Britain’s creative industries. That is not to be sneezed at when one considers—the BBC aside—the paucity of investment in those creative industries by the other players in the market.
I watched the American elections not just last night, but for weeks—I am an anorak in that respect. I dip into Fox News. I have to ration myself because I can feel my blood pressure rising. If anyone doubts why we must defend the BBC, I recommend carefully measured doses, under medical advice, of Fox News to see what we are fighting against and what we are trying to defend. Over the years, people have accused me of being obsessed with Rupert Murdoch. I am not; I am a great admirer of Rupert Murdoch. My only plea is that Ministers defend the public interest with the verve with which Mr Murdoch defends his shareholders’ interests.
The committee has already established itself as one of the great committees of this House, but I believe that its really important work may be yet to come. That is why I not only wish it well for the rest of this Parliament, but strongly hope that we commit ourselves at the due moment to its continuance in the next Parliament.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for introducing today's debate on the report by the Communications Committee, which I read with interest. It is a very timely contribution to the debate on this huge, fascinating and, as we have heard this evening, controversial subject.
We on these Benches welcome the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Barnes, to the House. I doubt that there could be a more apt debate on which he could make his maiden speech. I am sure that his experience in broadcasting and the communications industry will allow him to bring great expertise to his brief, and his sojourn as chief of strategy and principal adviser in No. 10 Downing Street will allow him to hit the ground running. We look forward to hearing from him.
As we know, there are ongoing changes in the way that our media are run and how they disseminate information, as changes in technology open up new avenues and close down old ones. As we heard from my noble friend Lord Fowler, the committee was right to place such focus on the provision of news in a free and pluralistic society, the free exchange of ideas and the provision of information. That is as important as ever.
We in Britain have a fine, though not flawless, tradition of reporting the news, in print, by wireless, internet and on television. I share with my noble friend Lord Fowler, the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Bonham-Carter, and many other noble Lords the belief that this country is served by one of the most successful public broadcasting services in the world. The cornerstone of that system is, of course, the BBC. The corporation may well be the most respected news-gathering organisation anywhere and it has a long established—although, again, not flawless—reputation for impartiality. The BBC has had a major impact on creative industries in this country, and the achievements of British public service broadcasting owe much to its work in the area.
However, the real success of British public broadcasting lies in its diverse nature. As we have heard, the presence of other high-quality providers, whether ITN, Channel 4 or Sky, has led to creative competition, which, in turn, has compelled the BBC to drive up the quality of its output. We feel that this model should be seen as one to follow: a number of separate news organisations, all contributing to the high-quality informing of their viewers.
This model is under threat following the Government's switch to digital. Despite all its crackles, there will be a cacophony of channels, not bound by the same public service requirements but which will split the advertising revenue available to those which are. We are already seeing cuts in the high-quality news programmes, not just on ITV and Channel 4, but on the BBC. The challenge for the Government, who have championed the switchover, is to come up with imaginative ways to maintain the provision of the high-quality and impartial news that we have a right to expect. I hope to hear that the Government have some thoughts of their own on that and are not simply waiting for Ofcom to tell them what they should do.
In the printed media, conversely, the trend has been towards consolidation of ownership into the hands of just a few organisations and individuals. As several noble Lords, especially the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood said, a balance should be struck that allows a diverse range of opinions to be aired and the news to be reported without proprietors telling their staff what they can and cannot report. However, I remember the noble Lord, Lord Black, on “Desert Island Discs” a few years ago unashamedly and honestly admitting that one of the purposes of owning a newspaper was to have a certain amount of influence on it.
The Communications Committee is quite right—I congratulate the chairman—that all parts of the media play an important role in modern democracies, although I notice that much of the report was given over to developments in this country. It briefly covered interviews that the committee made during its visit to the United States. However, I have attended several important international conferences on cross-media ownership—in Luxembourg in 1988, in Paris in the early 1990s and in Rome last year. I trust that the committee took into account their reports on this subject. The title of the report might be “The British Ownership of the News”, as it basically covers only British and American views.
In an increasingly internationalised world where media companies bestride continents and the impact of new technologies, as rightly stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is truly global, I trust that the Government have policies to put in place which will cope with that reality. I was surprised and fascinated that only the UK and the US have been mentioned this evening. It would be far too parochial to ignore the international dimension. I agree with Mort Zuckerman, who says in the report that he is “a junkie for journalism”. I am pleased that this report has stirred up some imaginative questions and I hope that the Government have some imaginative solutions.
My Lords, before I respond to the excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I should like to say a few words of a personal nature about myself and my role. I begin by extending my thanks to noble Lords for the warm welcome I have received from all sides of the House over the past few weeks. I genuinely appreciate the convention and the sincerity in the welcoming remarks made this evening. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, on her comments on the expansion of the Carter membership of this House—a view, I must say, that is shared by my mother—although it has to be said that, on any measure, I am at best half the Carter she is.
I hope that the confidence of the noble Lord, Lord King, in my alleged subject expertise will stand the test of time in this evening’s debate and beyond. I can advise him that I have not only read some of the committee’s previous reports, I have, unlike some newspaper proprietors, been called for evidence, appeared and given it. I hope that that will give me some knowledge as well.
Finally, perhaps I may highlight the welcoming comments from my noble friend Lord Puttnam, whose experience is extensive and includes his position as deputy chairman of Channel 4. He has been a friend and mentor of many, and I count myself fortunate to have been one of those. It was a particular pleasure to have been introduced to your Lordships' House by him and my noble friend Lord Currie, the noble percher. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is and always has been expert and elegant in offering constructive criticism to the friends and organisations he likes and admires. His comments on and to the BBC today are perceptive, and I hope that some members of the BBC senior management team are listening rather than broadcasting.
Perhaps I may also put on record my appreciation to the staff of this House for their helpfulness. On the day of my introduction, among other things, they could not have done more to put my two young children at their ease in this palace of gilt and grandeur, which can so easily overawe. My wife and I will be forever grateful for that.
I confess, given my ministerial brief, to being more than a little in awe of the extent and depth of experience and knowledge in this House about matters broadcasting and business, which have been so ably exemplified in this debate, not to mention the many professional political communicators who have mastered the skilful art of media communication and the cut and thrust of debate in the other place before going on to mastery in this House, a number of whom we have heard this evening.
In many ways I was brought up with the communications industries. In my early life, my father worked in the newspaper industry during the period described as the dynastic period of newspaper power and patronage. When the Daily Express was a broadsheet, and rather a fine one at that, if I may say, the Sun and the News of the World had recently been bought by a young Australian entrepreneur, and Bill Gates was just graduating from high school and writing his first payroll program in COBOL. I vividly recall my father’s time in Fleet Street, among other things renegotiating union arrangements for an earlier technology change, the transition from hot-metal printing.
Like many children who were among the first in their family to go to university, I used it both as an opportunity to leave home and experiment, and to gain a social and educational grounding, for which I remain deeply grateful. I spent a very enjoyable five years at the University of Aberdeen reading law and practising life, although it has to be said not always in equal proportions. My years studying law, however, resulted in a career in commercial rather than legal advocacy, which over the past 20 years has led me to various parts of the communications industry, from advertising and—yes—financial public relations to telecommunications and pay television, through to the launch of broadband and cable, and subsequently to the communications industry regulator, Ofcom. Among other things, over four years we helped to create the framework to build broadband out to the level that Britain enjoys today.
I have always considered myself extremely fortunate to have worked in and across an industry that crosses boundaries both of background and of geography, and one where the power of ideas and originality is valued above the power of individuals and institutions. It is therefore a double pleasure both to participate in this House and to do so on my own subject.
It is also apposite that I should open my innings in this House by responding to this evening’s debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on the Communications Committee’s thorough report on the ownership of news and the broader themes that it touches on: plurality, impartiality in news, effective democratic debate, quality, a responsive regulatory framework and the future of the media and communications industries. These are all vital ingredients of a healthy society and as such will be the key components of the Digital Britain Report, which is central to the ministerial brief commissioned by the Prime Minister when for the first time appointing a Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting in one person, one brief and possibly one anorak.
Before expanding on that, I shall respond briefly to the specific questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord King, and my noble friend Lord Maxton on the two current and topical issues of BBC governance and content regulation. On the issue of content regulation, I hope that my noble friend Lord Maxton will forgive me—or, perhaps, given his comments, he will support me—if I do not join in the chorus of commentary on the Ross/Brand affair. Suffice it to say that, after an unacceptably slow or possibly false start, the BBC, its trust and the industry regulator are now all doing what they are there to do. As my last comment on this affair, I hope, the only thing I would like to put on the record is that I hope sincerely that it does not serve as an incident that either undermines the BBC or induces too much creative or editorial caution in the ranks of the commissioners and controllers.
The noble Lord, Lord King, asked some penetrating questions about the division of responsibility and the efficacy of those responsibilities between the BBC Trust, the BBC non-executive board, Ofcom, and the court of public and media opinion. These are fine judgments and, as the noble Lord made clear, in most instances—including the BBC Trust—these are new institutions learning for the first time how to exercise both their regulatory and supportive powers under extreme examination. I remember the debate at the time of the creation of the current arrangements, and it was always judged to be a balance. There were many, and I think I included myself with them, who argued for a singularity, the unitary structure referred to by the noble Lord both in terms of regulation and governance. For good reasons it was judged right at the time to go for the mixture of arrangements that have been put in place. My comment to him would be that at this time I think we should live with those structures and hope that those currently occupying positions within them learn from what has happened in recent weeks.
On the particularly evocative question of reciprocity, I should like to reply to the noble Lord in writing. As he knows, within the European Union there is already full reciprocity and the question extends to other markets. I know from my experience in other markets where British companies encounter unfair discrimination, whether in ownership or regulatory rules, the Government are ready and willing to take up their cases. Nevertheless, a strong point has been made and I should like to reply to the noble Lord in writing.
Noble Lords do not need me to remind them that as our media are doing this well and consistently, our economy is wrestling with the fall-out from the credit crunch, as is every major economy in the world. As a consequence, many of those economies, including our own, are rightly looking to nurture those parts of the economy which can generate the jobs and growth potential to compensate for what we are losing from financial services. The French Government have recently produced France Numerique 2012, a comprehensive plan to build the infrastructure, services and content of their digital economy. It is notable. However, I believe that we in this country can and must match it—and preferably better it—in scope, ambition and comprehensiveness.
As many noble Lords have made clear, we start with many advantages: the strength of our content and creative sectors in publishing, advertising, television and other audio-visual production; the competitiveness of our communications market; our openness to new ideas and new investment; the reach and pervasiveness of our existing broadband and mobile networks; the thinking, if not yet the full realisation, of a market in wireless spectrum; and 60 years of a successful plural broadcasting network in radio and television, to which many noble Lords have referred.
As the debate has highlighted, these issues also have an equally, and perhaps critically, important citizen component at their heart; civic values and objectives that are central to a healthy society and a modern economy. Therefore today’s debate is a timely debate. Tomorrow, as my noble friend Lord Maxton pointed out, the process of digital switchover in terrestrial television begins in earnest with the progressive switch-off of the analogue broadcasting signal in the Border region. Terrestrial television is now catching up with the realities of a market that has in many other respects already become digital. By the end of the switch-over process four years from now, every household and every television in every household will be fully in the multi-channel, interactive age. It has been a national commitment to build out and fund, in part, a universal digital infrastructure, with an immediate capital investment of nearly £1 billion and a lifetime infrastructure investment by the transmission and broadcasting companies of several times that number.
Alongside this infrastructure and that of the cable and satellite companies many people will also have high-speed broadband services, so called IPTV, and, increasingly popularly, mobile broadband services. For many of those people and the devices that they are using, the boundaries between broadcast and broadband audio-visual content will be increasingly blurred.
To digress slightly, in 2008 we have begun to take broadband Britain for granted, although I, for one, remember when it was both a political and national problem. I was summoned, as the then managing director of the second largest telecommunications company in the country, into Downing Street to discuss what might be done to encourage deployment and take-up and remove this national problem. As I emerged from Downing Street that time round, I remember thinking that that went better than expected and was relatively easy. How little I then knew.
Broadband for everyone is, in a non-partisan sense of the word, a progressive objective. It is about inclusion rather than exclusivity; it is about access to information rather than control of information; and it is about participation. Therefore, practically rather than just rhetorically, broadband is a democratic activity. For businesses, broadband is about efficient distribution, lower costs and lower carbon consumption as we move to an economy that increasingly moves bits and bytes rather than people and goods.
However much has been achieved in broadband Britain over the past eight years, we must all recognise, and this evening’s debate reminded me of this, that we are still considerably further advanced and, frankly, more concerned, as a broadcast nation than we are as a broadband nation. We have as a nation consciously embedded—and, in part, publicly funded—universal access to digital broadcasting, but we have not yet embedded or publicly funded universal access to broadband, however defined. If Lord Reith was right, as in many things he certainly was, in his assertion that the broadcasting system of a nation should be a mirror of that nation’s conscience, surely our ambition should be for the broadband system of the nation to be the engine of the nation’s mind.
In summary on this point, we need to be a nation of both poets and plumbers, but we need to deliver the plumbing before celebrating or protecting the poetry or we will be left behind. That includes, although this is not exhaustive, a fully digital television service universally available on multiple platforms; a universally available broadband system competitively priced, at meaningful speeds; a national digital radio network universally available with true nationwide coverage; and mobile and wireless services that can do for video what they have done for the spoken word. If we can achieve those four things, we will have connected the nation to the next generation of plumbing and given ourselves a comprehensive infrastructure for the digital age.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, made clear, these changes are significant, but we can make for a better outcome if we are clear about what the future infrastructure is before we make lasting policy decisions about what the future creative solutions should be—because then we can focus on the poetry. We can focus on creativity in film, in television, in advertising and online. We can focus on rights, their value and where and how the rewards of creativity should be shared. We can focus on ensuring a continued supply of original UK-originated content that works on all those platforms that we have built and delivered. We can focus on the delivery of plural and impartial news—funded, independent, truly local, national and regional—and we can focus on competition for quality in both the private sphere and the public service context.
On a number of the Communications Committee’s recommendations, the Government’s written response contains soft words. However, discerning readers—and it would appear that there are a number here today, including the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—appear to have detected a sense of less than total, and possibly even less than requisite, enthusiasm. I offer some personal context. Digital technologies and the market, as many have said today, have created a profusion of new content. Production costs are lower and there are many more routes to the viewer and the user. We have seen, and will continue to see, thousands of flowers bloom, whether in user-generated content, local and special interest sites for information and social interaction, or 200-plus specialist channels on digital television. This revolution has also taught us how to get more out of what we hitherto took for granted. Televised sport is a prime example. Digital has given us, in one notable respect, an award-winning, fully market-funded UK news channel. However, in news overall, particularly national, regional and local news, all parties can agree on what the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Inglewood, made clear—that the picture is by no means as rosy as this.
During the past decade or so, many in your Lordships’ House, and I include myself in that otherwise illustrious company, have overseen, or in some instances conducted, a series of transitional agreements, which we could even call “deals”, with the commercial public service broadcasters to preserve the breadth of and investment in public service content, particularly national and regional news. These arrangements have sought to manage and slow the pace of decline. Frankly, though, decline is exactly what it is and has been. It is retreat, not creation. While these arrangements have to varying degrees served the viewer in the transition, that transition is ending. The levers of exhortation and the levers of regulation are ceasing to have purchase at a pace which few truly appreciate.
We must look urgently at how best to secure a shared civic agenda—effective political debate, plural and impartial news, but in the changed circumstances of a fully digital world that I tried to describe. If we want things to stay the same, or return to the quality they once were, they are going to have to change radically.
We will need more far-reaching, radical and different forms of intervention than those we have all grown accustomed to and in some cases grown up with. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, put it as ever well when he described the media as a form of national conversation, not just a form of national commerce. However, I believe that he recognises that we are now in that place where we need to look more surgically at the differences between the institutions operating in those markets that the state can continue to control and influence and those that, frankly, we cannot and probably should not.
We may be comfortable as a society with the BBC as the sole purveyor of impartial news in television, in radio or at a local level, but I doubt that many, including the BBC, would see that as an ideal outcome. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, clearly laid out the disproportionate strength of the BBC in the current news market in his introduction to this debate. Of course, some would say, we do not have the BBC alone; we have the BBC plus the market. But perhaps I may refer briefly to what is happening in the market.
The report of your Lordships’ Communications Committee rightly touches on two trends that represent increasing pressure points, particularly on the advertiser-funded model that has delivered us quality from a range of broadcast providers in news and other genres over the years. This model has, alongside the cover price, sustained a range and quality of news in national, regional and local papers that is the envy of many other countries. The two trends of consolidation and of audience fragmentation, driven by the ineluctable shift to digital technology, are having a profound effect on all our media— press and broadcasting. Those trends featured throughout this evening’s thoughtful debate. Audience fragmentation among other things crucially affects the broadcasters’ ability to earn the revenues necessary to sustain investment in quality news and other programming. That is, however, a clock that we neither can nor should seek to turn back. One viewer’s audience fragmentation is many other viewers’ exercise of a choice that they did not previously have. We therefore need to address its consequences, not to deny or redress its realities.
Another interesting reality that we need to recognise is that, while the new platforms that I unashamedly champion and the new revenue streams that they have brought are very significant—subscription in television is worth more than £4 billion a year; broadband revenues are worth more than £2.5 billion a year; and mobile telephony call revenues are worth more than £15 billion a year—they generate very little new or additional UK-originated content, at least outside premium sport. It is perhaps of the order of £100 million a year, including market-based news. That should be compared with approaching £2 billion of advertiser-funded UK audio-visual content, and the same order of magnitude from the licence fee.
Many of this evening’s contributors have made it clear that, as a society and an economy, we must either get used to UK content being spread ever more thinly across a wider range of platforms, or find or encourage new business models, new revenue streams or new forms of funding that will sustain and preferably enhance content creation, including well resourced news gathering, in this country.
The committee’s report rightly highlights that consolidation carries a risk of disproportionate influence landing in the hands of too few individuals or too small a number of organisations. However, in at least some parts of the media world, consolidation with the right remedies is on balance a response to, not a cause of, concern. I would point to cable consolidation, in which I was involved and which gave the initial impetus for today’s broadband competition; consolidation in local radio, which sustains 600 stations and has contributed much to a digital platform that covers 90 per cent of the population; and even consolidation in commercial television and satellite, which, funded by advertising and subscription, today gives us the better part of £1 billion a year of original UK production. The impact of the internet on local and regional newspaper and local radio revenues, particularly when coupled with an economic downturn, means that consolidation may be a necessary alternative to licence hand-back or title closure, or, perhaps even worse, the slow degradation and hollowing-out of any quality in their news provision. My sense is that this is in part the analysis that lay behind the comments of the noble Lord, Lord King.
We welcome the committee’s recommendations about the need to revisit the current ownership constraints, particularly on local radio and newspapers. The Government agree that there is an argument for change to be considered and the issue will very firmly be on the agenda of the Digital Britain report over the coming months.
More generally, let me cover the two key issues that ran through the committee’s report: the operation of the public interest test and impartiality. The purchase of shares in ITV plc by BSkyB plc was the first time that the Government have used the Enterprise Act power to investigate the media public interest test. In light of this experience and on balance, we are satisfied that the present arrangements for initiating such a test are appropriate. If I am allowed to make a personal comment, let me say that I am unconvinced that a change in who can initiate a public interest test is, on balance, merited at this stage. It is still right that the decision to make such an exceptional intervention falls to Ministers directly answerable to Parliament, not to the independent regulator. Similarly, it is right that the Competition Commission, not the sectoral regulator, should conduct the final investigation into both the competition and public interest issues arising from any merger. In truth, the requisite depth of experience rightly resides within the commission, not within the regulator.
The Government fully endorse the committee’s considered view of the importance of the impartiality requirements, especially on, but beyond, public service broadcasters. Not only are these rules an essential part of the regulatory framework, but they have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, pointed out, served to condition the market for news in this country. In a way, we should seek to underline, not undermine, those rules. I believe that it explains in part why in this country the market produced Sky News rather than Fox News.
Of course the print media are very different. It is a long-standing principle that the content of the press should be free from state intervention. We continue to believe that robust self-regulation is the best way of ensuring high standards of reporting in the press. In fact, as the traditional media place greater emphasis on the internet to deliver content, we may need to trust more to effective self-regulation. However, I would like to put it on record that we may therefore need to expect more from this system.
As I have said, tomorrow in the Scottish Borders the terrestrial television switchover begins. Terrestrial television is playing catch-up with the market-led digital world of satellite, cable, mobile and broadband. The benefits are clear: greater choice and interactivity for viewers and opportunities for growth and innovation in business. The challenges are equally clear. First, broadband and broadcasting need to be seen by policy-makers as of equal import, with the recognition that the former is having a significant impact on the economics and cultural reach of the latter. Secondly, not all solutions will necessarily come from existing structures and institutions. Thirdly, we should embrace new forms of content but recognise that the forces that enable that content do not necessarily favour or fund the creation of well funded, impartial news. Lastly, UK-originated content is a significant and critical contributor to the sector.
Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and his colleagues on the Communications Committee for what I believe is a comprehensive analysis of the issues. I also thank them and other noble Lords for their contributions tonight. I hope that I have covered most, if not all, of the issues raised. I also hope that noble Lords will understand if I have not, at my first outing at the crease, quite managed to hit all the balls that have been bowled at me. I hope that as the Government take forward these important issues in the Digital Britain report, this House in particular will continue to engage its expertise with the matters that are so crucial to our society, to our economic success and to our political debate.
On this day of all days, let me follow in the fine tradition of transatlantic political word-sharing and echo the words of the President-elect, Senator Obama, who said:
“Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age”.
To those words I would add, “But let us do so as both citizens and consumers and, as it relates to news in particular, let us do it in that order”.
My Lords, first, I pay a sincere tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his elegant and forceful maiden speech. Everyone who listened to it would have been impressed by it. No one who has come to that ministerial job is better qualified than he is to do it. As he would expect, there were parts of his speech with which I personally did not agree, and which we would like to debate, but now is not the time to do so. Genuinely, I thought it an outstanding maiden speech. It was fascinating to hear what he said about corporate governance at the BBC and his original views. We were always written off as eccentrics for having those views, so it is nice to know that those eccentric views are now shared by others—and even more are coming out of the woodwork.
Let us look back on the Minister’s career. He was educated in Edinburgh and was student president of Aberdeen University in 1985-86. I think that one could see some of that coming out this evening. After graduating from Aberdeen, he went to J Walter Thompson, where he was made managing director at the age of 31, if my arithmetic is correct. He went on to become the chief executive at Brunswick before going downmarket and becoming Gordon Brown’s chief of strategy and principal adviser at No. 10. Fortunately, that did not last long and we very much welcome him to his job today.
It is customary to say at this point that we look forward to hearing from the Minister again, but I do not think that there is any particular point in repeating those words. He will find himself being much used on the Front Bench and, on future occasions, we might even interrupt him from time to time, but I know that he will be able to deal with that.
To speak generally about the debate, I did not refer to the Government’s published response to our report because I did not think it worth referring to. It was a pretty inadequate response from the department, whose instructions seemed to have been to play a straight bat and concede nothing. That is exactly what the response did. I hope that the new Minister can improve on those responses.
I thank everybody who took part in the debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, for what she said about the BBC and her warning about programmes such as “Newsnight”. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, put an emphasis on the interests of the citizen and the importance of the Content Board. The noble Lord, Lord King, made a number of points, including a particularly important one about reciprocal arrangements between the United States and us. It is ridiculous that a company in the United States can take over ITV and we are totally unable to have the same reciprocal arrangements. The department needs to do rather more than just play a straight bat on that one.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, referred to a conflict between the views of current editors and those of former editors of newspapers on the influence of owners, pointing out the frankness of former editors on the issue and the slight reserve of the current ones. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, pointed out that the report had taken some time, as indeed it did. In parenthesis, I wish her luck in the election in which she is engaged. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, pointed out that we are not in the days of Lord Beaverbrook, who stood over editors saying, “Thou shalt do this and thou shalt do that”. Editors now operate in an envelope rather than under that detailed instruction.
I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who patiently listened to the contributions to our debate—virtually everyone who has spoken has been on the committee—and who was constrained to make a speech of only a few minutes. He has vast experience, so that was a great pity. His points were important, including the point that the BBC should be careful about losing public support. I think that all of us who support the BBC would wish to send that message.
I thank the other two Front-Bench speakers, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and my noble friend Lady Rawlings, for their contributions. I also thank the noble Lord for his support for the committee. I almost left out the noble Lord, Lord Maxton—the noble anorak himself—who only very occasionally agrees with the chairman of the committee. I think that it is fair to say that his views are firmly anti-religious. My greatest achievement ever when chairing the committee was to get him and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester to agree on our report on religious broadcasting. I am not sure how I did that, but the noble Lord probably regrets it.
This has been a useful debate, and it will continue. I thank the Minister again, as I thank everyone who has taken part.
On Question, Motion agreed to.