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Media: Ownership

Volume 730: debated on Monday 10 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans for changing the media ownership rules in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we need a full and thorough consideration of all aspects of media ownership legislation. The Secretary of State has asked Ofcom to examine what are the best options for measuring media plurality and to recommend the appropriate approach. We will of course be taking into account the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry before any final decision is taken on media ownership.

I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is it not the case that too often in the past decisions on media ownership have been influenced by political considerations? Given that, does my noble friend agree that it is totally wrong that, as at present, politicians should have the final say on who owns the media, and that if we want to prevent too much power resting in the hands of one company that system should be changed—and changed as quickly as possible?

My Lords, I would like to be able to give a more positive answer to my noble friend Lord Fowler but, as he and many noble Lords know only too well, we are at present having sensitive discussions. He is aware, too, that there is new legislation in the pipeline and we will be receiving a new communications Bill during this Parliament. However, I agree with him, as does the Secretary of State, that too much political consideration has been taken, and as a result the Secretary of State said on 14 September at the Royal Television Society conference that he was looking at whether we should have the same approach for media plurality law as we do for competition law. It could be better for these decisions not to be taken by politicians, as my noble friend so rightly said, and we are exploring this option. These are early days and no decisions have been taken. As I said, we will consider the recommendations on this.

My Lords, why have Her Majesty’s Government refused to use Section 58(4) of the Enterprise Act to fill the gaps that were clearly identified during the BSkyB bid?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot remember which section the noble and learned Baroness was talking about, but we are fully aware of what she asked. The point was made by Ofcom that media plurality public interest tests can be triggered only by merger and therefore do not cover growth, which is the area that she was talking about.

My Lords, in view of the fact that the ownership of websites has been excluded from previous legislation, what steps have the Government taken, and will they be taking, to rectify this serious oversight?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ryder asks a fascinating and important question. In determining the appropriate size of media ownership, we will be considering the extent to which websites should be included. The current rules are outdated and do not even acknowledge the existence of websites, yet websites could conceivably have an important role in controlling access to new sources and have implications for plurality. That is why the Secretary of State has asked Ofcom to look into this matter, and we will consider carefully the recommendations that Lord Justice Leveson makes in this area.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House whether, in considering issues of plurality, the Government will also consider issues of diversity, as these are not the same? Plurality does not always guarantee diversity, which is what citizens need.

My Lords, plurality in the context of media ownership refers to the number of owners and size of ownership of different media outlets and does not cover diversity, as the noble Baroness mentioned. I am sure all noble Lords agree that a healthy democracy needs correct information, and, in general, to be able to participate effectively in a political process, access is needed to all sides of the debate. However, this is unlikely to happen if the media are under the control of a too tightly restricted number of owners.

My Lords, as the monopoly of opinion is the most fearful of all monopolies, is it not the case that the accretion of power in the media should at least be subject to the same tests of competition as all other forms of enterprise?

The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, makes a very valid point. In most cases, competition rules will prevent unacceptable levels of media concentration. However, there is no guarantee of that, because competition rules address only the abuse of market power. It is possible for an organisation to have a very large share of the market but not abuse its position for unfair competitive advantage. This would be acceptable in competition terms but it could still cause very real worries from the point of view of media influence, as the noble Lord said.

My Lords, I have just come from sitting on the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions. Can the Minister reassure the House that the furore over the behaviour of certain sections of the Murdoch press will not result in a detrimental encroachment on press freedom? We do not want hacking, but we do not want our press not being able to investigate. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that it was not politicians or the police but the Guardian newspaper that exposed the hacking scandal.

My Lords, if there is a renewed bid, it will have to be looked at on its merits. As with any other bid, on another occasion it could be possible to include additional grounds for intervention, such as a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards. However, we are not proposing to frame legislation with the aim of blocking any specific deal. If or when we come forward with proposals, they will have to protect plurality in all circumstances.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the light of all that has occurred, it would be unwise for the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State to meet members of the Murdoch family privately? Can she give an assurance that it is now the policy that any such meetings will be attended by civil servants and properly minuted?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness knows that no meetings are allowed to take place without civil servants being present.