Question for Short Debate
My Lords, as many of your Lordships know, this debate was first scheduled just before Christmas but was withdrawn by consensus after discussion because the debate on the Modern Slavery Bill had become unconscionably drawn out and the rigidity of the rules of procedure meant that nothing could be done to stop it being further propelled into the depths of the night. Because of that, I am very grateful to the usual channels and the House authorities for expediting this later debate—but it is by definition shorter than the one we would have had then. A large number of Members have wanted to speak. Some have withdrawn and others will have little time. I have therefore said that if those who want to speak on another occasion on this important topic would let me know, I shall see if we can find a way of doing that.
I shall aim to be concise in my opening remarks. Those who want to follow up the detail of the report can always read it for themselves. Equally, there is a custom in this House to congratulate those who produced the report. Perhaps on this occasion we might take it that silence equals universal congratulation, and that anybody who wishes to dissent can always express themselves in detail.
On 4 February last year, nearly 12 months ago, the Communications Committee, of which I was then chairman, published its report on media plurality. This was the conclusion of work by the committee over the previous seven or eight months. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, the current chairman of the committee, for allowing me to lead this debate. I will also thank Tim Suter, our specialist adviser, and the staff of the committee—in particular Alan Morrison, the policy analyst, who has moved on to other things.
Media plurality is about ensuring that the public have available to them a range of different opinions, views and information from a variety of sources. A good media plurality policy ensures that there is a varied mix of viewpoints and information available within the media from a variety of different voices. At the heart of our inquiry and report lies this firmly held idea that if there is sufficient plurality within the media, our fellow citizens have access to a diversity of viewpoints and individual media owners will not have excessive and disproportionate influence over the political process. We think that this is very important.
In the recent past—that is to say, in the past five years or so—issues surrounding media plurality have come under the political and media spotlight. This has been prompted by concerns raised about the proposed, and then dropped, acquisition of BSkyB by News Corporation, Ofcom’s report on measuring media plurality, the Leveson report, the report by the European Commission’s high-level group on media freedom and pluralism, and the Government’s consultation on media ownership and plurality.
The Communications Committee therefore decided that it would carry out an inquiry to examine ways in which the policy and regulatory framework surrounding plurality could be updated. Many ideas had been proposed, but somehow nothing firm had emerged. Hence we embarked on our inquiry to produce a set of recommendations that would command support and instigate action for reform.
We heard oral evidence from about 40 individuals and organisations and received written evidence from about 20 more. Many proposals were put to us. We evaluated them, considering carefully their merits and demerits. From this, we produced our own proposal for reform which I will briefly explain this evening.
We propose a system built around two key elements. The first, which is new, is the undertaking of a plurality review on a predictable periodic basis in addition to the present transactional system. We believe that the Government should introduce a statutory periodic review of the plurality of media markets to be undertaken by Ofcom on a four to five-year basis. Whatever is done has got to be manageable and realistic, so Ofcom’s assessment should be based on a limited number of measures that address availability, consumption and impact.
We think that Parliament should have a role in setting guidance for this new framework, but, crucially, that the metrics should not be set down in statute. In the fast-moving media world of today, it is essential that there is flexibility for Ofcom to interpret the statutory guidance, design the assessment framework and select metrics that are appropriate at the time of the review. After all, what is suitable at one point in time may not be suitable at another. This report needs to send very clear signals and guidance to all concerned about the prospects of consolidation in future transactions in order to limit the need for any subsequent transaction or plurality reassessments.
In this way, the periodic plurality review will set the context for the second element of our proposal, which I have already touched on: a modification of the existing arrangements for a review of specific transactions that occur between one periodic review and the next. We believe that there is a flaw with the current system of transactional reviews, which is that they muddle the distinction between competition policy and plurality policy. Plurality assessments and competition assessments must be carried out as two distinct procedures by regulators, each with the appropriate set of priorities, expertise, methods and ethos. It is absolutely right that competition authorities should retain the responsibility for the assessment of a transaction’s impact on competition, but it is equally appropriate that Ofcom should be given a new statutory responsibility for the assessment of a transaction’s impact on plurality.
There will, of course, be occasions when the two authorities reach different decisions about whether a media transaction should go ahead. We concluded that in cases of such conflict, the citizen’s interest should trump the consumer interest. This means that responsibility for resolving such conflicts between the competition authorities and Ofcom in their reports on any particular transaction would be given to Ofcom. The Ofcom board should make the final public interest decision, not the competition authorities as at present. The Ofcom board, mindful, of course, of its own twin statutory duties to further the citizen’s and consumer’s interests, should weigh up the merits of each case and determine whether overall on balance it is in the public interest for the transaction to proceed.
That, in brief, is the Communications Committee’s proposal for a plurality policy. It is flexible enough to take account of changes in the media world and would not, we believe, require substantial revision every few years.
The Government have responded to the committee’s report. The response was published in a single document with the Government’s response to their July 2013 consultation on media ownership and plurality and was received in the first few days of the Summer Recess. The part containing the response to our report sets out the 46 paragraphs of recommendations contained in the committee’s 258-paragraph report, but contains just 20 paragraphs of responses. Somewhat to our surprise, the Government do not engage with the substance of much of what the committee said, saying that their,
“work on plurality does not attempt at this stage to propose what measures might be taken to address any potential plurality concerns. Rather we”—
“think that without the initial evidence base upon which to base policy decisions, the best course of action is impossible to identify”.
The Government’s proposed course of action is to,
“look to commission Ofcom to develop a suitable set of indicators to inform the measurement framework for media plurality”.
I have three points I would like to make about this statement. First I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm, despite the imprecise language used, that the Government are actually going to commission Ofcom to do this work—and, in particular, when it will be done. Secondly, it misses the point of our recommendation for a series of periodic plurality reviews. The media sector, as your Lordships will know, is one of fast-paced change. Regular reviews would allow the sector a degree of certainty, but for such a review to have any practical relevance at all, Ofcom needs to be able to select metrics that are appropriate to the circumstances at the time. Such a baseline, which is clearly defined and rigid, to assess media of the kind envisaged by the Government is a one-off affair and is simply not flexible enough for measuring something going through such radical changes as media markets.
This takes me to the third point in response to the Government, which is that the response does not really get us anywhere. In 2010, issues surrounding media plurality were firmly in the spotlight because of the proposed takeover of BSkyB by News Corp. There was near unanimity that “something must be done” to update our media plurality policy. We are now four years on from then and media plurality issues have, for now, moved from centre stage of current media and political debate—but, in reality, we are no further forward than we were four years ago. Now is the time to get a sensible and flexible policy. If we wait until the next crisis comes before we do anything, media plurality policy will still be as unfit for purpose as it was four years ago—indeed, probably more so.
We are nearing the end of a Parliament. The committee is clear that the next Government must move forward swiftly in formulating a media plurality policy that is “fit for purpose”. This must ensure that there is sufficient media plurality to ensure that citizens are able to be informed through access to a diversity of viewpoints, and that medias do not have too much influence over the political process. Will the Government confirm they think that this matters, and will they please tell the House what they are proposing to do to ensure that it is actually the case?
My Lords, I too am a member of the Select Committee which undertook this inquiry into media plurality, and I commend the findings as a very useful contribution to the debate surrounding this controversial subject. It is controversial in that there are many views as to how to ensure we enjoy access to an environment which provides media plurality and protects the public against an undue concentration of power.
Policy approaches to media plurality are not straightforward. If there is sufficient media plurality, then citizens will have the opportunity to be informed through access to a diversity of viewpoints, and the media owners cannot have too much influence over the political process. Our findings recognise that the media market is in a fast changing climate and organic growth should not be suppressed unless it has caused immediate and pressing concerns. We also believe that:
“The scope of any plurality policy should encompass both local and regional media as well as national media in the devolved nations and UK-wide media enterprises. In dealing with local or regional media, those tasked with making decisions should in reaching their conclusions pay particular attention to the question of financial sustainability”.
I would just like to mention why the committee did not find in favour of using caps on media ownership to make an assessment of media plurality. Even a hybrid system that might trigger action which incorporates structural and behavioural remedies was not, in the end, preferred. More flexibility is required to consider the diversity and range of independent news voices, overall reach and consumption and propensity of consumers actively to multi-source. It was felt that the unpredictable and arbitrary nature of the trigger would have inevitable consequences for innovation and investment.
Media plurality, not a goal in itself but more a means to an end—achieving a well informed public empowered to make decisions at the ballot box—is vital for a healthy democracy.
My Lords, the events of last week in France have laid bare that at the heart of our liberal democratic society lies freedom of speech and a free press. Plurality is central to this. Diversity of ownership is an indelible liberal principle. A corporate media monopoly threatens a free press almost as much as a state monopoly. Central to the existence of a diverse and independent media is that no individual organisation has too much control of the national conversation and that there is an array of competing voices, so that the public can draw from a range of views. This requires strong rules around media ownership to protect plurality in the marketplace. I am sure my noble friend the Minister will agree that it also highlights the importance of protecting public service broadcasters such as the BBC in order that alternative sources of impartial information are available.
But plurality is not just about ownership. We also need diversity within the media and among practitioners—the journalists, producers, editors, writers and cartoonists. At the moment it is too white and too able-bodied. Last March Lenny Henry made a speech calling, in no uncertain terms, for change and I am glad to say we are getting it. Ed Vaizey, DCMS Minister of State, established a cross-party, cross-industry round table. I sit on it and we meet regularly. There has been a gratifying response. The BFI has added diversity to existing requirements for accessing its film fund. ITV has announced a social partnership which requires commissioning editors to better reflect the diversity of modern Britain. The BBC has established an independent advisory group and announced new targets, as has Sky, which has also set up a BAME scholarship for its academy, and yesterday Channel 4 launched its 360-degrees diversity charter. Congratulations—now let us hope the rest of the media follows suit. In these times we need to reflect and understand diversity more than ever.
I refer noble Lords to my interests in the register. I wish to raise two points relating to children and young people, and why the metrics of the framework that Ofcom is commissioned to design should explicitly consider young people.
First, the young, by virtue of their age, have a more limited life experience from which to critically appraise information. This leaves them more vulnerable than their adult counterparts to the possible harms of a restricted or lop-sided diet of news and current affairs. In December 2010, Her Majesty’s Government undertook to look at all new Bills and policies in the light of the UNCRC, and I argue that media plurality policy falls well within the rights described in the charter.
Additionally, the framework should also take into account how young people consume news and current affairs. Ofcom’s 2014 figures show a rapid increase in the amount of information the young access online. As many noble Lords will be aware, the commercial internet is constructed primarily on an advertising model that sets algorithms largely based on what a user previously viewed and on what their social networks previously “liked”.
This personalisation has benefits of filtering searches and newsfeeds so if you prefer jazz to rock, or fast foods to wholefoods, you will be offered choices that fit closer to your desires. However it has an insidious effect on news. This mechanism—known variously as the filter bubble, echo chamber or personalisation—is a structural obstacle to media plurality.
One of the great wonders of the web is the extraordinary range of information and opinion it delivers; how it does so, however, is not neutral. Can the Minister therefore confirm that Her Majesty’s Government, in light of previous undertakings, will ask Ofcom to explicitly take into account the availability, consumption and impact of news and current affairs on children and young people when designing the measurement framework and, in doing so, that the personalisation of their media online and the proportion of their news and current affairs consumed online will be taken into account?
My Lords, I agree with the committee in its recommendation that Ofcom is at present the best vehicle to conduct any plurality reviews, and it is as plain as a pikestaff to me at least that great issues such as media foreign ownership or the overwhelming dominance of the BBC must not be allowed to dominate plurality reviews. Not just regional but local plurality is very important, as paragraphs 169 to 172 of this report suggest. Local plurality is rather a different animal from the big Westminster village issues that doubtless my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood and other noble Lords will address in a moment.
While local areas may have just as many aspiring citizen journalists powering the new media as there are on the national stage, in the older print media, locally it is a fight against extinction for what is often now one survivor. In my part of the West Country, in Dorset and Somerset, dairy farmers and the print media alike are going fast out of business. In that particular area just one local paper—as it happens a very good, prize-winning one—is left in the paid-for field, so it has come simply by inheritance to hold a monopoly position. Monopolies are generally bad, but in this case no local paper would be there at all if it went out of business. In fact, if it did there would be just one free-sheet magazine, supported by advertising in the local area.
Therefore in any local assessments, this survivorship monopoly is not a bad but a public good. The picture is so different from the national. In local media assessments the first principle must be to preserve localism where possible and to see that to that end supportive cross-media ownership locally is not just a good—it may well be vital.
My Lords, I agree with a good deal of the report, but there are four areas where I have small disagreements.
First, plurality is not enough. You might have several points of view, but if those points of view do not communicate with each other or do not understand what each is about, the plurality can be a recipe for social fragmentation. Therefore plurality should be accompanied by mutual understanding and dialogue. That dialogue and debate is the lifeblood of democracy, not just plurality per se.
The second important thing is that that we might have plurality in the sense of several points of view, but it is perfectly possible for one to be extremely dominant and drown out the others. How do we ensure that simple multiplicity of points of view is not enough? There has to be some equality between different points of view.
The third important point to bear in mind, which was made earlier, has to do with the pluralisation of the media itself. You can have a situation where you have a wide number of newspapers and media outlets, but let us say on the questions of race or gender they may be manned only by people from one particular community or gender. In that case you have plurality of ownership, plurality of media, but uniformity of views, which obviously does not bear thinking about. When we talk about plurality we are talking about plurality of points of view, not just in one area but in all.
The last point is on something that slightly puzzled me. The report attacks the market, rightly, but talks in the language of the market. It says, for example, that plurality is important in order that a citizen “can access and consume” points of view. I should think that a point of view is not a commodity and that it is not something to be consumed. It is something one identifies with. Therefore, diversity of points of view and media plurality are important, not so that the individual consumer can make a choice between them but in order that democracy can be vibrant, different points of view can debate with each other, and we can arrive at a broadly acceptable point of view.
My Lords, this debate should obviously be looked at in the context of the development of the law recently. Until the Communications Act 2003, the only restriction on media mergers or the abuse of a dominant position was through competition law. The 2003 Act introduced for the first time a public interest test for media mergers, which imposed on the Government an obligation to assess whether the media merger would have adverse effects on media plurality. The Act had two major weaknesses. First, there was no definition of plurality, although we all understood that it probably referred to what Mr Murdoch was up to; and secondly, there was a basic weakness that a plurality review occurs only in the circumstances of a merger.
The recommendations this report makes are quite significant. It recommends that Ofcom should continue its transactional review capability, and the centrepiece is of course the tripartite approach the committee recommends. First, in the event of any media merger the competition authorities first look at the impact of the transaction on competition or on the abuse of monopoly position, where there is no transaction; secondly, Ofcom looks at whether a transaction has an adverse effect on media plurality; and thirdly, and very significantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, indicated, there should be a statutory periodic review of plurality of media markets by Ofcom on a four to five-year basis. Like members of the committee, we believe that if whoever the next Government are could legislate to that effect, the potential abuses by media moguls will be avoided.
I will pick up where the noble Lord, Lord Patten, left off, on local media. I ask your Lordships to concentrate not just on the collapse of regional newspapers and the failure of new local television channels to cover local news sufficiently.
This time of transition offers a very exciting opportunity to set up hyper-local sites which concentrate on local matters. The coverage at the moment is very different in different parts of the country. Cities like Birmingham have local papers and a plethora of local blogs, websites and social media, whereas others, like south Wales, are much more poorly served.
We need to act now to encourage a wide variety of sites which will allow local information to evolve in these poorly served areas. Time is of the essence. The big players, such as Google, are moving in to scoop up the local business advertising spend. When that happens the revenue raised will not be recirculated into the local economy; instead, it will be repatriated to California. Right now we need to encourage the setting up of different kinds of local sites which will keep that advertising spend in the local economy and inform local communities at the same time.
The Media Standards Trust has brought out an interesting report, which suggests that some kind of prize money could be offered to support the launch of new ideas from the ground upwards so that they are tailored specifically to the needs of their area. There are a variety of ways of funding that, but one of the most attractive is to use the levy already charged to internet intermediaries and other sites by the Office of the Information Commissioner for the resale of personal material about our browsing history. At the moment that is divided into a single annual levy for large companies and a smaller one for small companies. A graduated fee structure across those companies could bring in more money to pay for this prize.
This is a great opportunity to increase plurality across our nation at a local level, to ensure that people are given crucial information about their areas so they can take part in our democracy as fully informed citizens. Will the Minister consider such an idea to encourage plurality in the local media across the country?
My Lords, I draw attention to my media interests in the register and in particular to my presidency of the European Newspaper Publishers Association.
In its admirable report the committee was absolutely right to draw attention to the European aspects of this debate. At the moment the European Commission has a limited and strictly defined role in UK media plurality policy through the EC merger regulation, and it is right that it should. However, in recent years there have been attempts by some to expand the scope of that competence; the report cites the efforts of the European Initiative for Media Pluralism in particular. That grew out of the highly controversial EC High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, which recommended in 2013:
“The EU should be considered competent to … protect media freedom and pluralism at State level”.
It was not just the high level group which sought to expand the EU’s role in this area. The Commission itself has in the past few years spent hundreds of thousands of pounds funding a so-called Media Pluralism Monitor, which has sought to quantify, interpret and then rank media plurality across Europe despite the EU’s lack of competence in this area.
Such a development would not be acceptable. Media plurality—reflecting the way media markets operate very differently in each country—must be a matter for national Governments. That is why I welcome the finding of the committee at paragraph 34:
“There appears to be a strong consensus that UK media markets should be the focus of media plurality policy; we agree”.
In its response to the committee, the Government rightly concurred and said that responsibility for media plurality, ownership and media freedom should rest with the member states. That clear policy is of particular importance in view of the upcoming review of the audio-visual media services directive during the term of this Commission and other discussions that are under way. I would therefore be very grateful if my noble friend the Minister would restate that important commitment this evening.
My Lords, reference has already been made to the fact that many Peers withdrew from this debate because of the shortage of time. I was tempted to do so as well. I reckoned, however, that the 10 seconds extra that everyone would get if my two minutes were redistributed were hardly worth the candle. There is another important point. It is very important to demonstrate to everyone concerned that the matter of this debate is not simply of concern to the Communications Committee. Creating a healthy democracy requires—almost as a prerequisite—a vibrant media. This is a vital issue which I trust the House will address again with greater time at its disposal.
I want to make three very brief points—possibly two, depending on time. First, it is important to define the universe properly. This is responsible, I think, for the conflicts between Ofcom and the Competition Commission. I take the area of local newspapers, radio and television. Local newspapers, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, pointed out, were a monopoly. Local radio was originally set up as a monopoly of local commercial radio, and local television at the moment is a monopoly. These are beneficial monopolies in that they at least have the resources to generate news. Once too much fragmentation is created by defining the universe too narrowly, the result is no news at all.
The second point, which I will make briefly, is to watch the technology, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, pointed out. We are at the point now where technology is not passive. It could well dictate to us. People are concentrating on media owners in the traditional sense. The people who own the search engines and who manufacture television sets may well be a much greater threat to plurality in the future.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for his able stewardship of this topical inquiry. Clearly, we have seen a huge transformation in the media and communications landscape as a result of digital technologies, online journalism and social media, with an influx of new entrants to the news market. Increasingly, the younger generation get their news from Twitter, Vox and BuzzFeed. As a result, the levels of choice and media plurality have never been greater. We are also fortunate to have a public service broadcasting system that guarantees the provision of well resourced, independent and impartial news from the BBC and other commercial PSBs.
As several noble Lords have mentioned, plurality policy needs to encompass both local and regional media. I support the recommendation that policymakers should adopt a balanced approach, taking care not to penalise success nor harm innovation while acting to address plurality concerns. I also support the call by ITV that the UK needs a new and more equitable regime governing the basis on which PSB content providers commercialise their content on pay-TV platforms. Finally, I also support the recommendation that Ofcom undertakes a statutory periodic review of plurality every four to five years. There needs to be a clear demarcation line between plurality and competition policy. Measuring media plurality cannot be confined to any single measure, but should reflect a collection of measures. I shall end with the words that we used at the start of this report:
“Media plurality is not a goal in itself but a means to an end”.
My Lords, there are good reasons why there has been no agreement yet on how to approach media plurality. First, everyone has their own definition. Ofcom has come up with three criteria, one of which is impact. How do we measure the impact on someone who gets their news from reading, listening, watching and downloading the news? Secondly, there is how far policy on plurality would overlap or conflict with competition policy. Are we to have different criteria for measuring competition and plurality? Thirdly, there is the obligation of impartiality and balance imposed on the broadcasters. How will that be evaluated? It is no wonder that Ofcom has said that assessing media plurality involves judgment as well as measurement.
Let me make one observation to illustrate how the world is changing, a matter which noble Lords have referred to. Facebook uses algorithms to decide which new stories rise to the top of the page. It is therefore possible that the 26 year-old product manager for the Facebook news feed is one of the world’s most powerful news executives. On top of everything else, how on earth is this to be factored into measuring media plurality?
My Lords, I declare a past interest. I was chairman of Scottish Television when we bought the Herald and the Glasgow Evening Times newspapers in 1996 and created the Scottish Media Group. To complement our ITV franchise for central Scotland, we then merged with Grampian Television, covering the north of Scotland. Our combined ownership of newspapers and broadcasters caused understandable public concern. Both transactions were cleared by the competition authorities, but I was left in no doubt about the sensitivities of the media market in Scotland, which is quite distinctive.
Watching the independence referendum from south of the border—as, indeed, I did—your Lordships may have been perplexed to see banner-waving crowds outside BBC Scotland alleging pro-union bias. Inevitably, the channel 3 broadcaster, STV, was also accused of bias by yes and no campaigners. Both broadcasters will, I trust, keep their nerve and their impartiality. That balance may be difficult to maintain longer term.
Unlike public service broadcasters, newspapers are, of course, more partisan. Despite almost half of their readers voting yes, most Scottish editions of the UK papers opposed independence, as did the locally owned newspapers the Scotsman, the Dundee Courier and the Aberdeen Press and Journal, which resulted in a pro-union press consensus denounced as undemocratic by nationalists. Given such tensions in the relatively small Scottish media market, I welcome the committee’s recommendations that plurality policy for the UK should also encompass the devolved nations. The Government are tasking Ofcom to develop indicators and frameworks to guide market assessments of future media transactions and concentrations of ownerships. Ofcom’s assessment of the Scottish media market will be awaited with keen interest.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, on some of his points, because I want to take a slightly different perspective. We have dealt with plurality, yes, but I remain deeply concerned about the power of the national press, especially during elections. I quote the Leveson report on the issue of media ownership:
“The media ownership regime takes as its starting point the position that a variety of owners will represent a variety of different viewpoints. This cannot be taken as axiomatic as owners could have a very similar set of views and values”.
That is, for me, precisely the issue. The current market dominance and the partisan nature of our press inhibit the democratic process.
Let me deal with the European aspect. It is worth noting—and I say this as a previous chief election observer in Rwanda—that the internationally agreed principles for free and fair elections involve a balanced and non-partisan media in the run-up to and during the election. This process involves measuring the amount of coverage dedicated to each party, as well as the reportage. The EU handbook is clear. It highlights that the European Union approach is based on international human rights standards, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also underlines that election observation missions must adhere to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, a landmark document, commemorated at the United Nations in 2005. It states:
“The concept of due impartiality does not mean that broadcasters cannot provide critical coverage of the candidates and parties”.
It goes on to state:
“The media therefore have a great deal of responsibility placed on them during election periods, and it is essential that the mass media of radio, television and newspapers provide a sufficient level of coverage of the elections that is fair, balanced and impartial, so that the public are informed”.
On that basis—of a highly partisan national press—it is clear on this point alone that the UK would not pass such an election observation mission.
My Lords, this is a really good report, which deserved a much better response than it received. I hope that the Minister, when he comes to respond, can help fill in the gaps.
There are some things we can agree on: we have a workable definition of media plurality and a definition of the desired outcomes of a plural market. We also agree on the need to centre plurality policy on current affairs and news, and on the need to centre it around the UK, not neglecting local and regional issues, national media and the devolved Administrations. We also agree on the need to take up a platform-neutral approach. But why did the Government not go further with the other recommendations? Why are they not willing to engage with the recommendations of the BBC? Why do they not accept the centrepiece of the committee’s work—the establishment of a statutory periodic review? Why do they not pick up the ground-breaking new relationship proposed for government, Ofcom and the Secretary of State in relation to transactional issues?
The Government simply note the committee’s ground-breaking recommendations on a dual competition and plurality review system. That seems to me to introduce a very unwelcome uncertainty and instability into the market. It is surely not acceptable for a Government to indicate that they are minded to legislate on an issue and then to dither about what they intend to do.
First, I thank noble Lords for the quick yomp through these issues. I appreciate the discipline that was shown, as does my noble friend who has been whipping on this issue—the iron lady of the Whips. We are very grateful to noble Lords for that.
I welcome the opportunity for your Lordships to debate this important issue of media plurality and the Communications Committee’s detailed consideration of this matter. I agree with the concept of media plurality and diversity of views. I think that point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I thank my noble friend Lord Inglewood and the committee members, some of whom spoke in the debate, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, and my noble friend Lord Razzall, for their hard work. My noble friend Lord Inglewood has considerable expertise in this area and has chaired the Communications Committee with great distinction.
The public’s ability to access a wide range of news, views and information about the world in which we live is central to the health of our democracy and our society. Neither the Government nor any other body can, or indeed should, compel people to consume a range of media voices, or control the impact that these voices have on public opinion, but it remains the case that the Government should seek to promote the availability and consumption of a range of media voices. To that extent, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, on the importance of these issues. It is important that there should be access to a range of media voices. I confirm to my noble friend Lord Black that the Government certainly do regard this matter as a national government issue. There is no doubt about that.
It is, of course, vital that the Government seek to achieve this in an appropriate way. The media landscape is changing at a pace that some of us could not have envisaged when the regulatory framework for plurality was originally devised—a point made by my noble friend Lord Inglewood and others—and the environment will undoubtedly continue to evolve and change very quickly. While television is still the most used platform for news, 41% of adults say they now use the internet to access news stories. Of these, 18% are using Google and 17% Facebook. The social media referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne are of increasing importance. I note the points that the noble Baroness made in relation to this. Certainly, the Government speak up forcefully on these issues, and Ofcom, which is following this debate, will have heard what she has said. We shall make sure that Ofcom is aware of this debate, although I believe that it is following it closely.
The impact these changes are having on the ability of consumers to access a wide range of diverse viewpoints and information remains to be assessed. That is why in July 2013 the Government consulted to seek views on, and define the scope for, a measurement framework for media plurality. Before we decide whether to fix anything, we must first understand whether and to what extent it needs to be fixed. It is clear, however, that with the huge growth in online content, there is a case for broadening the scope of policy on plurality to consideration of the online part of the media landscape.
The Communications Committee’s recommendations on plurality followed soon after Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. This timing was helpful for government, as the committee’s report provided further detail to complement Lord Justice Leveson’s high-level recommendations—recommendations which were described by him as being,
“at the level of desirable outcomes and broad policy framework, rather than the technical means of achieving those outcomes”.
The committee’s findings were therefore vital to the Government’s consideration of this matter, and informed our conclusions on the consultation. Indeed, there is much on which the Government and the committee agree, not least that we can no longer overlook the increasingly important role that is played by online content in the way the public find news and information about the world around them, and that it is news and current affairs which are of most crucial importance to media plurality and which should therefore be the focus of a measurement framework.
In our response earlier last year to the consultation and the committee’s report on plurality, we set out what should be included in a measurement framework for media plurality. Having considered the matter in detail, we concluded that online should be included and the type of content which is most relevant to media plurality is news and current affairs—that, of course, is central to democracy and elections, a matter rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. The scope should include all organisations that impact on the news and current affairs. This will include organisations that generate, gather and aggregate news; services that could affect discoverability and accessibility, such as online news services; and professional and non-professional commentary such as bloggers and social media. The BBC should be included. My noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter referred to the importance of its role. The framework must deliver indicators capable of illustrating the situation at United Kingdom level and in each of the four home nations. That point was rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. It should examine issues at a regional and local level. The importance of local media was rightly raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, my noble friend Lord Patten and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, as these are vital issues.
This very much reflects what the Communications Committee concluded on the scope of plurality policy. The Government and the committee also hold common ground in viewing Ofcom as the most appropriate body to take forward development of a measurement framework, in light of both its relevant expertise and its independence. We therefore announced in August last year that we would commission Ofcom to produce the measurement framework, taking into account our conclusions. Ofcom, as an independent body with significant understanding and expertise in media plurality, is well placed to lead on this work. It is deservedly trusted in this area, as my noble friend Lord Patten mentioned.
The measurement framework is a policy framework, underpinned by various indicators developed by Ofcom. It will enable us to measure whether the United Kingdom’s media landscape is sufficiently plural—for example, coming back to the diversity point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that the public have access to a diversity of viewpoints—consumed across and within media enterprises, and that no one media owner or voice has too much influence over public opinion or the political agenda. The Secretary of State is clear that it will be for Ofcom to decide on the metrics that inform the framework, but he also specified that at least one of the indicators should be focused on media ownership. The framework will subsequently allow for the first ever baseline market assessment of media plurality in the United Kingdom to be conducted.
Ofcom is ideally suited to undertake this work, having already developed detailed thinking in this area, including advice provided to the then Secretary of State in 2012. I am sure that Ofcom will apply to this work the rigour and in-depth analysis that it deserves. Indeed, Ofcom has already published a call for inputs to invite early feedback from stakeholders on the indicators that a measurement framework should include. I understand that it will publish a consultation very shortly—certainly during January—with a view to reaching conclusions this summer, after consultation. Ofcom is, of course entirely independent, so the detail of the timetable is for it to consider, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on how this work may be progressing. However, I am very much looking forward to hearing its conclusions.
The Government have been clear that we will not consider changes to the existing policy or regulatory framework for media plurality before the measurement framework and baseline assessment have been delivered. Once these are complete, with the full knowledge of any problems that we may need to solve, we will be able to establish what regulatory changes may be necessary and proportionate to address any concerns.
As my noble friend Lord Inglewood said, this is a fast-changing area. No doubt Ofcom will bear that very much in mind. I note that one of the committee’s recommendations was that the Government should introduce a statutory periodic review of the plurality of the media market, to be undertaken by Ofcom every four to five years. This is an interesting recommendation, which may merit further exploration. But as I have made clear, the Government do not think it appropriate to consider changes to the existing policy at this stage, before the measurement framework and baseline assessment have been delivered. To quote the committee’s report,
“the assessment of plurality should drive the decision about which remedy or intervention is appropriate, not the other way around”.
Despite the constraints on time, this has been an excellent debate. I welcome what my noble friend Lord Inglewood said about the possibility of further investigation and further debates on this issue. We shall continue to ensure that the committee’s recommendations are reflected on in any subsequent work by the Government. I have made a careful note of the points raised in questions that remain outstanding, and I shall, of course, write to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate on those matters.