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Media: Foreign Ownership

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 7 April 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they propose to ensure non-European Union nationals owning British print media publications conform to national regulations and the Press Complaints Commission's Editors’ Code of Practice.

My Lords, I had thought of asking whether I could deal with the Questions en bloc, but I did not think it was procedurally acceptable—and as the Lord Speaker is here, I thought that I had better not.

The Government do not propose any new measures to regulate non-European ownership of British print media publications. The press is self-regulated, having adopted a voluntary code of practice which imposes requirements relating to accuracy and balance in reporting. Complaints are handled by an independent Press Complaints Commission.

I thank the very industrious Minister. In the mean time, does he feel that the famously flabby Press Complaints Commission has the true grit necessary to do effective monitoring over the election campaign period in order to ensure that the oligarch-owned monopoly area free newspapers do not dish out a relentless series of election news stories of a hardline capitalist nature to the detriment of the Liberal Democrat Party and other progressive parties?

My Lords, on the question of regulation, we strongly believe that a press free from state intervention is fundamental to a strong democracy. Of course, with that freedom comes responsibility, as well as an obligation to abide by the law. All newspapers, including foreign-owned ones, sign up to a self-regulatory code of practice covering accuracy and balance of reporting which is enforced by the Press Complaints Commission.

My Lords, we all accept the need for a free press but does my noble friend agree that there is something slightly the matter with foreign owners living abroad and with no loyalty to this country being able to control the editorial policies of our leading papers? Does he further agree that this is something that the Government should look at very seriously after the election? It is not democracy and it is not sensible.

We would not agree with everything that my noble friend says in relation to that issue; nor would we be able to say that we are opposed to any foreign investment in British newspapers. Whether the next Government will look at this issue is best left to them.

Will my noble friend consider a more innovative approach to this problem? Given that the press is such a keen supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, will he consider extending such an Act to the press itself?

My Lords, is there not a great danger of our press being extremely vulnerable? We are told that the economics of the printed press are now extremely fragile. Do we have defences in place to stop major titles falling into the hands of foreign owners, in the way that our football clubs have done, without any proper check on the responsibility of those buying up such titles?

My Lords, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene and could do so if he believed that the merger might give rise to concerns relevant to the media public interest consideration, the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion in newspapers, and the need for a sufficient plurality of views in newspapers in the UK or a significant part of it. Therefore, where we feel that there is an undue monopoly, the Secretary of State has the ability to intervene. I quote a recent example although it happens rarely. The media plurality powers have been used only once so far—in relation to the proposed acquisition by BSkyB of a significant shareholding in ITV. That was a slightly different situation because it cut across the media rather than relating to just one aspect.

My Lords, is it not time that any acquisition of British media from abroad should be made conditional on compliance with EU regulations and the Press Complaints Commission editorial requirements, and that that condition should be enforceable by law so that the problems adverted to by several Members this afternoon would be avoided?

My Lords, to my knowledge they are subject to those regulations. The problems referred to so far have been of concern. There has been concern about the takeover of a couple of newspapers by one foreign owner, but that is all that has been mentioned so far. Therefore, they are obligated to subscribe to and observe the rules, both voluntary and compulsory, that currently apply.

My Lords, is there not something incongruous about national newspapers which trumpet in banner headlines that they know how the Government should run their business, and condemn them for how they do so, when their own businesses are in such a parlous condition that they have to sell newspapers such as the Independent for a pound to a foreign oligarch?

My Lords, I am not sure that I totally agree with that analysis. I think that running a newspaper in the current environment is not easy, given that we are talking about the electronic media as a whole.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the newspapers which most strongly support the Conservative Party are either substantially controlled by non-domiciles or are controlled in offshore tax havens such as Bermuda which minimises their tax contribution to the United Kingdom? Is there not a contradiction between their vigorous support for British national sovereignty and the determination of those who control them to avoid paying British tax?

My Lords, does the noble Lord recollect whether Lord Beaverbrook was a Canadian? I think he was. Can he further say whether he regards a KGB man to be an appropriate person to ensure that the press is free, open and unbiased?

My Lords, perhaps I may slightly correct the noble Lord: “former KGB” might be appropriate. I know he is a stickler for accuracy. We shall have to judge this takeover by what happens in practice. I repeat the point I made previously: all newspapers, including foreign-owned newspapers, sign up to a self-regulatory code of practice covering accuracy and balance of reporting, which is enforced by the Press Complaints Commission.