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Media: Ownership

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 15 February 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they are giving to the implications of Saturday’s arrests of senior News International journalists for the future of BSkyB’s broadcasting licence.

My Lords, this is a matter for the police, who should follow their investigations wherever the evidence takes them. Decisions on whether News Corporation remains a fit and proper person to hold a broadcasting licence is a matter for Ofcom, which is taking its responsibility in this area seriously and is in touch with the relevant authorities. The Government have no role in its decisions.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, given that it was not just journalists but senior management at the Sun who were arrested at the weekend, and that according to press reports it is now possible that the directors of News Corp could be charged with offences under America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, is it not time to review the way in which the fit and proper test applies to those holding broadcasting licences so that the Government have the power to intervene as and when events require it, rather than having to wait for a trigger event, such as a takeover or a referral to the Competition Commission, which is the case at present?

The noble Baroness raises serious issues but she will be aware that the Government have no power to intervene over whether anyone holding a broadcasting licence is a fit and proper person, and there are currently no plans to change this. By coincidence, the Communications Select Committee will publish a report tomorrow on the future of investigative journalism, which will cover these matters in greater detail. Of course, the communications Green Paper is also coming up shortly, when there will be further opportunities to discuss these issues.

Given the self-interested approach of leading politicians in both main political parties to media ownership over the past 30 years, does the Minister agree that, unless this matter is properly independently regulated, the Government have as much chance of getting this right as the Football League has of approving a fit and proper person to own Portsmouth Football Club?

My noble friend asks a challenging question. He will be aware that it has been difficult for Governments to investigate the media in great detail, but we now have the Leveson inquiry, which, it is hoped, will bring many matters to light. As I said, we will also have the opportunity to discuss this through our own communications paper.

My Lords, given my noble friend’s justified concern about this issue, does the Minister not agree that BSkyB has performed a very important function in British broadcasting, increasingly in cultural as well as in sporting and news events, and that it does an important job in challenging the hegemony of the BBC?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. It is perhaps all too easy to overlook the fact that BSkyB performs a great service in the country and, indeed, that News Corporation has played a great part in media plurality over the years. It is to the credit of News Corporation that it is co-operating fully in the current investigation.

My Lords, is there not an overriding public interest in the continued existence of a free press and does this not apply to all forms of media?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. It is essential that we have a free press in this country. It is very much valued. We sometimes have to take the rough with the smooth in some of the ideas and media stories that a free press comes up with.

My Lords, first, I thank the Government for finally accepting that Section 58(4) of the Enterprise Act can now be amended. Bearing in mind that fact, does the noble Baroness not believe that it will be important to add the fit and proper person test now, as opposed to waiting until the Leveson inquiry has reported?

I know that the department is grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for the discussions that it has had with her on these points. The point she makes about the fit and proper person test is that it would require primary legislation and we are not currently minded to make changes to the regime. However, as with the other matters, it will be part of the communications review, and of course we will have to take into account the recommendations of the Leveson report.

My Lords, in recent days, leading members of the media have said that in certain circumstances it is all right to give money to police officers for information. Can the Minister confirm that it is a criminal act for anyone, including journalists, to give money to any serving police officer for private information?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for trailing tomorrow’s Communications Committee report, which covers in some depth a lot of the issues that are being discussed now. Although I recognise that, on the face of it, some activities of some journalists who have been engaged by News Corporation appear to be absolutely abominable and unacceptable, it is equally important, in the interests of investigative journalism and the way in which our country is run, that people are perceived to be innocent until they are proved guilty.

I agree with my noble friend. We must also bear in mind the power of investigative journalism, which has turned up some stories that have been of great benefit to the country as well as a cause of pain to other people.