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Media: Ownership

Volume 715: debated on Monday 30 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will discuss with the Press Complaints Commission proposals for a review of foreign and overseas-based news media owners in Britain.

The Government have no plans to conduct a review of foreign and overseas-based ownership of news providers in Britain.

My Lords, is not the United Kingdom the only leading European country where government policy options are regularly and routinely hijacked by these dodgy characters who do not pay UK taxes properly and yet insist on inflicting their unpalatable and extremist views on a long-suffering British public? Is it not high time that even the famously timid Press Complaints Commission decided to have a close look at this matter which is of great concern to a growing number of people, not least with the present situation of some rather sinister-looking linkages between the former editor of a Sunday tabloid newspaper and a leading opposition party?

That suggests quite a wide agenda, my Lords. I shall confine myself to the obvious point that the Press Complaints Commission would not be the first body that we would think of consulting about these issues; it has a fairly narrow remit which is nothing at all to do with this issue. A body that is connected with this issue is Ofcom, which is obliged to examine this position every three years. Its latest report came out only a fortnight ago, and it is largely consistent with government policy.

I welcome Ofcom’s decision, but is there not a strong case for either the PCC or someone else to look at the management structure of these newspapers? It strikes you that when complaints are found by the PCC to be correct, very little is done by the newspapers in their management structure either to prevent such abuses happening again or even to help their staff address those problems. We have a rather bizarre position where newspapers are declining in sales and need to improve the quality of their journalism if they are to survive against the internet, and yet in some cases are producing news that has far more in common with creative literature than it has with news reporting.

Well, my Lords, the Press Complaints Commission is the body which provides self-regulation for the press. My noble friend is inviting me to talk about how newspapers are actually managed, which I think would represent a considerable intrusion in the concept of the freedom of the press.

My Lords, does not the Minister simply exude complacency in the face of reality? Not only is there is a strong lack of confidence in the Press Complaints Commission, which is a sweetheart regulator, but our judges are making libel law that makes us a libel tourist destination, while the march of new technologies actually undermines the finances of the printed press. In the face of those realities, is it not unbelievable complacency for the Government simply to sit pat while our newspaper industry is in real peril?

How extraordinary, my Lords, that the noble Lord should upbraid the Government for being complacent when we are introducing a Bill on the digital economy that covers a substantial part of the news media in this country and gives us the opportunity to examine Ofcom’s report on this aspect. As for the newspaper industry’s financial future and the health of the press, those are matters for the newspapers to sort out themselves. We all recognise that in a pluralist world, they are certainly under greater pressure; however, if the free press enjoys freedom from government intrusion on what it contains, it also enjoys freedom from government intrusion on how to safeguard its financial interests.

My Lords, the Minister has just praised self-regulation, yet later this afternoon this House will propose that we no longer have self-regulation. There seems to be a gap in the Government’s thinking on this. However, is it not time for a royal commission on the press which could take into account all the views that have been expressed here this afternoon and in the wider country?

My Lords, the difference with regard to self-regulation is that Members of this House are paid from public money, while the newspaper industry gets its finance from private resources.

On the more general point of a royal commission, this Question, as I have indicated, is about news. The quality of the news is a crucial part of the Digital Economy Bill, which will get its Second Reading on Wednesday and will be before the House for consideration way before any royal commission could ever dream of acting constructively.

Does the Minister agree that as the independent chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, I hardly represent someone who is the “sweetheart” of the press, having had no background in the industry whatever? I am not quite sure why that view has been expressed today. Is he also aware that the Press Complaints Commission has set up a review of our governance and structures to try to counter some of these accusations and perceptions, which we are very determined to overcome?

Presumably, my Lords, the “sweetheart” aspect was in respect of the whole Press Complaints Commission, not just the chairman, however fondly the noble Baroness is regarded in this House. I am grateful for her identification of the steps that the commission is taking against a background which she is the best placed of all to appreciate regarding the constant anxieties about the way in which certain sections of the press act.

Will my noble friend tell us when that report is due to see the light of day? How long will the review by the Press Complaints Commission take?

I have no answer to that; it is a matter for the Press Complaints Commission. My task is to report on the Government’s actions, and I hope I have identified how the Government intend to address themselves to what we all recognise are the important issues of the media, media ownership and media opportunities in the digital age. As I indicated, the House will be addressing itself to those issues on Wednesday this week.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that press standards sometimes hit a new low? The other day, I saw a photograph in the New Statesman of Ted Heath, Georges Pompidou, Willy Brandt and various others sitting around a table over a caption which said, “Ted Heath presiding over his Cabinet”.

My Lords, of all the complaints about the media, I had not thought that I would have to address myself to standards in the New Statesman.