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Media Ownership

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for reviewing the rules governing media ownership.

My Lords, the Government have commissioned a report from Ofcom on media ownership to be completed in June 2012. As your Lordships will be aware, the Leveson inquiry will also report on matters related to media ownership and any recommendations will be considered as part of the communications review.

Surely the Leveson inquiry has already confirmed that over the past 30 years politicians of all parties have, in the words of the Prime Minister, “cosied up” to the media proprietors to get support. Is there then not a clear conflict of interest when those same politicians become Ministers and judge on media mergers and takeovers? If that is the case, why cannot we act now and take politicians out of the whole decision-making process?

My noble friend makes some valid points, although I should add that not all politicians have cosied up to the Murdoch empire over the years. However, in the light of recent events, it has become increasingly important that politicians are not seen to influence decisions on the media. The Secretary of State has himself agreed that this is a very important item for discussion, and it will undoubtedly be taken up when the decisions on these matters are made.

My Lords, have the Government taken any thought about what they would do if they discovered that the Murdoch-owned press was to be sold off? We already have a very high proportion of non-taxpaying non-resident owners of the British national press. Do the Government have contingency plans in mind in order that we should retain at least parts of our media that are in the control of people who have a stake in the future we share?

The noble Baroness, I know, has raised this concern before, and it is a valid one. It will be part of the consideration. I am not trying to put off giving an answer on this. It is one of the things that will certainly be taken into account in the light of the Leveson report and the Ofcom report which is due next month. We then need to look holistically at how to cope with these issues.

My Lords, do the Government have any plans to extend this review beyond media ownership to the BBC, and particularly to its rules on political impartiality?

My Lords, my understanding is that this particular review is contained within the media that have been the matter of debate for so long. The BBC has its own regulations which are constantly scrutinised. For the moment the review relates mainly to the printed media but obviously it could apply to multimedia as well.

Does the Minister accept that there is, in fact, already enough evidence to show that the Murdoch empire was too big and we ought to recognise that principle now; that there is a difference between a publicly funded broadcaster such as the BBC which is subject to all the rules and regulations that we in Parliament lay down indirectly, and a private owner; and that the old term “the press barons” has come to mean something that is deeply disturbing to us all? We need to start by saying that the Murdoch empire became too big and has to be cut down in size.

The noble Lord makes a very clear distinction between regulation of media in public ownership and media in private ownership which is a valuable one to bear in mind. It is perhaps interesting to cast one’s mind back in history and see if we can think of any particularly philanthropic and beneficial media moguls over the years. It is not a new issue but it is very much an issue of today.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that tackling the concentration of media ownership is important because greater plurality means greater diversity, and that this can only be good for both our journalism and our politics?

Yes, indeed—my noble friend makes another important point on this. At the moment the media-plurality public interest test can be triggered only by a merger or takeover; it cannot really take account of organic growth. That is certainly an issue which the current reviews will look at to ensure that owners who take different forms of media into their ownership can also be under scrutiny.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm when the long-promised communications Green Paper will be published? Can she clarify whether there is any truth in the media reports that Jeremy Hunt is so busy preparing for the Leveson inquiry that he has had to put the Green Paper on the back burner? If that is the case, does it not underline our view that it is time to let someone else get on with the job?

No, I do not follow that logic at all, I am afraid. The Secretary of State is probably as busy as anything with the Olympics and all the other activities of 2012 that we have been discussing so fully in your Lordships’ Chamber. The communications review is on course. Subject to the legislative programme, the Government hope to introduce new legislation before the end of this Parliament, and of course the Leveson inquiry will influence the contents of that.

My noble friend asked a question of herself as to whether there were media moguls who had been extremely philanthropic. In that category, she may recognise the Scott family and the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. Is she aware of any country in the developed democratic world that is as indifferent about who owns its essential press?

Well, one can never anticipate the questions in your Lordships’ House but I thank my noble friend for putting me right on kindly media moguls. Regarding his question, I think that that could be a topic of advanced research for some students in one of our splendid universities, making a comparison with other countries.

My Lords, have not successive Governments made unnecessarily heavy weather of what is actually a very simple, although very important, problem, which is, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, the huge concentration of media power in just a few people? Can I ask the noble Baroness, first, certainly to accept what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has recommended and, secondly, to adopt the very simple principle that one national newspaper is more than enough for anyone?

The noble Lord of course makes very valid points. Once again, I have to draw attention to the fact that we have ongoing inquiries which will look at that, and it may well be that they will conclude that one national newspaper is enough. However, we have had some very productive cases of people owning more than one newspaper, and the question then is: how many is too many?