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Media: Ownership

Volume 708: debated on Monday 2 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ask Ofcom to investigate any sale of major United Kingdom media companies to assess the suitability of potential future owners.

My Lords, as Secretary of State I have the power to intervene in any media or newspaper merger which I believe gives rise to specific public interest issues, such as concerns about accurate presentation of news or free expression of opinion in newspapers. Where such an intervention is made, Ofcom must provide a report on the impact of the merger. This provision exists alongside other statutory rules governing ownership of media enterprises and on accurate reporting and impartiality in broadcasting.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed Answer. Have the Government received any information from Ofcom or any other sources that would lead them to give credence to the recent rumours that Al-Jazeera is interested in purchasing ITV or Channel 4? Furthermore, can the Minister tell us whether the Government are concerned about the possibility of those major media outlets and others in the print media disappearing further and further from British hands?

My Lords, I have not heard any information about such an exotic proposal as Al-Jazeera taking over ITV, and I will be keeping my ears open. I assure the noble Baroness that I will be eternally vigilant in pursuit of the powers that I have, but they are necessarily limited powers. They do not extend to any member of the Government being able to act on personal whim or prejudice. We have to have a clear public interest case made to us as the basis for any intervention, but of course I would be open to receiving such concerns in the public interest, should they arise.

My Lords, will the Minister allow me to slightly widen the Question from the noble Baroness away from the return of Sir David Frost to our television screens to the wider question of the structure of broadcasting generally? Will he accept that we cannot open any Sunday paper without reading speculation about the future of ITV, Channel 4, or what the Government are going to do about preserving public service broadcasting outside the BBC? I had not actually seen the Al-Jazeera story. When does he feel that the Government can give a clear statement of their policy in this area?

My Lords, the Government offered an initial and provisional outline of their views when my noble friend Lord Carter published the Digital Britain report. That is an interim report: the Government will give further consideration after consultation to what conclusions we eventually reach. In the mean time, all options relating to the future ownership of the media outside the BBC remain on the table, but I assure noble Lords that at the heart of the Government’s consideration of those matters will be our determination to maintain a strong sense and basis of public service at the heart of our broadcasting, whatever future ownership structure emerges.

My Lords, the situation is rarely as serene as the Minister implies. Does he recall that when the Times and satellite broadcasting were under threat, the Administration of the day waived the protection in legislation at the time to allow those deals to go through? If one of our major broadcasters or newspapers were in similar crisis, he would be under similar pressure simply to save the broadcaster or newspaper under threat.

My Lords, I can imagine the pressure that would be brought to bear on the Secretary of State in such circumstances, but the noble Lord can be assured that I would be neither serene nor complacent.

My Lords, before alarm bells ring in the ear of my noble friend on the prospect of Al-Jazeera having an interest in taking over ITV, will he bear it in mind that Al-Jazeera was the only thoroughly objective news-gathering service during the course of the recent dispute in Gaza?

My Lords, I described the possibility as exotic, not objectionable. I hear what my noble friend says and will take that into account should any eventuality arise concerning that broadcasting organisation in the future.

My Lords, were the Government consulted about the recent takeover of the Evening Standard by the Russian?

My Lords, the Government were not consulted as such. The circumstances of Mr Lebedev’s purchase of the London Evening Standard are, I gather, that after making considerable profits on the paper, the previous owners made it clear that they would close it if the transfer was not made. Mr Lebedev seems to have been the only option for keeping the paper alive. I think that we would all agree that maintaining the London Evening Standard in existence is in the public interest and that of journalism in this country. It is perhaps not ideal but what is ideal these days in the newspaper world? We can only wonder what Vere Rothermere would have made of it, but that is now a matter only for speculation.

My Lords, are the powers vested in the Enterprise Act sufficient for the Secretary of State in cases of this kind?

My Lords, I think that the powers are sufficient. But remember that the powers to which the noble Lord refers in the Enterprise Act are not the only ones open to the Government; there are also powers concerning competition and dominance in the media market, something which we have to keep under review as cross-ownership between local and regional newspapers and radio and television might arise, because the commercial and market circumstances for this sector are not what they were in the past and we may need to keep an open mind to certain adjustments. But, yes, I think that the powers we have are sufficient.