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Broadcasting White Paper

Volume 820: debated on Monday 14 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the forthcoming broadcasting White Paper will make proposals about prominence in relation to (1) online radio services, and (2) smart speakers.

My Lords, the Government have committed to ensuring that listeners continue to have free-to-air access to UK radio services when listening via connected audio devices and that radio services are not discriminated against by large tech platforms which carry audio over internet protocols. The digital radio and audio review considered these issues in its report of last October. The Government’s response to that report will be published shortly and will set out our position in this area in more detail.

I thank the Minister for his positive reply. Prominence rules were put in place over 15 years ago for TV broadcasters and are set to be updated, I believe, but there are none at all for radio. The pandemic and now events in Ukraine have reinforced the importance of PSB radio, but as audiences increasingly access radio and audio services on demand, online and through new devices, this valuable service is at risk and at the mercy of the global tech companies which control distribution of content on these platforms. Reform is urgently required . I am glad that the Minister agrees—I think—that there is a pressing need to address this issue in the broadcasting White Paper and the media Bill. Can he tell us when that is likely to come?

The noble Baroness is right that there has been rapid change in the last five years. Smart speakers have become widely available and are now owned or accessed by a third of all adults, so the Government recognise the urgency of the issue. We are very conscious that connected audio devices are starting to represent a significant and growing share of radio listening. They have opened new routes for listeners and new avenues for content creators, but they also carry a risk of listener access to radio services being disrupted or limited. We fully recognise those concerns and are committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure continued free-to-air and unintermediated access to UK radio. As for future legislation, that will be set out in the normal way.

My Lords, the withdrawing of funding for Creative Skillset in 2016 has left a gap in audio-only skills training. BBC Sounds Audio Lab and Global Radio’s academy have filled some of that gap, but does the Minister agree that there is a role for the Government to help develop and deliver high-quality audio skills training for a new generation of talent?

Yes, I agree with the noble Viscount. As I say, as the review noted, these devices have opened up new avenues for content creators to reach audiences with podcasts and other audio output. There are very exciting job opportunities for people in this area and part of the work we are leading through DCMS is to make sure that people have the opportunity to work in our vastly expanding creative industries.

My Lords, tech platforms and smart speakers have now become gatekeepers to the UK radio broadcasters, with access to all their valuable audience data. Will the Government ensure that the long-delayed new statutory competition framework for the Competition and Markets Authority’s Digital Markets Unit becomes a priority, levels the playing field between broadcasters and online platforms and addresses the significant current risk to media plurality and radio broadcasters?

We recognise that good arguments have been made for taking action to protect radio’s long-term position and ensure the continuation of the huge public value which radio provides. However, that will not be straightforward; any significant intervention in this area will need to be considered in the wider context of other work we are carrying out, particularly in relation to digital markets and data protection reform.

My Lords, the Minister referred a short while ago to what I think he called our “rapidly expanding creative industries”. Is he confident that his colleagues in the Department for Education are fully aware of the opportunities those industries offer and are constructing the national curriculum in a way that makes it possible for people to access them?

Yes, I have regular meetings with colleagues in the Department for Education and across government. I have had them in the past and have more coming up imminently. We are discussing these issues across departments so that we can make sure that everybody, whatever their age—whether they are school leavers or people who are changing career—has the opportunity to move into these exciting areas.

My Lords, is it not the case that the old-fashioned shortwave transmission systems are much more difficult to interfere with than the more modern systems? Therefore, can the BBC be persuaded to concentrate on that system when broadcasting to Ukraine and thereabouts?

As well as availing themselves of the opportunities which the new media and new technology allow, we recognise that many people still rely on analogue radio services. That is why we have said that it would be wrong to switch those off before 2030, at the earliest. Both the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and DCMS are working with the BBC to maintain the very important work that the World Service is currently doing in Ukraine.

My Lords, in the same way that the online safety Bill has been drafted to have a degree of flexibility as the internet develops, will the Minister look at making prominence regulations technology neutral in the same way? To avoid duplication of regulation for TV, radio and online, has an assessment been made of the potential for a one-stop shop for prominence rules?

The review which I mentioned was commissioned by the Government as part of the wider look at the broadcasting sphere. We are conducting that strategic review of public service broadcasting and will set out our response to it in due course. I cannot anticipate what it will say but I can assure the noble Baroness that we are looking at all these issues in the round. As I say, this is an area where the technology is moving rapidly, so it is right to review it carefully.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why Russia Today was allowed to broadcast for as long as it did, sending out its propaganda on a daily basis? Surely there is a need for balance, and should not the regulator have taken action far beyond what it did before? It has cancelled it now but why did it have to wait for something like this to happen? Should it not have taken action before?

My Lords, one of the things that sets us and the rest of the world apart from countries such as Russia is our commitment to free and fair broadcasting. We are very pleased that RT has been removed from Sky Freeview and Freesat in the UK, which means that Vladimir Putin cannot push out his propaganda on UK networks. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State wrote to the major platforms asking them to do everything they can to prevent access to RT online in the UK, as they have done in Europe, and we are very pleased that Meta and YouTube have taken action and removed RT from their platforms. Therefore we have acted in this area while recognising our commitment to free speech and broadcasting.

Your Lordships have become very used to listening to answers from the Dispatch Box opposite which sound as though they are lobbing the question into the long grass. The Minister said that technology is moving very rapidly in these areas. Are the Government?

This is an area in which only five years ago smart speakers were not available and now they are now widely available in people’s houses. The Government are keeping pace with that very rapid change, conducting thorough reviews with stakeholders and considering it carefully. A five-year timeframe for technology that did not previously exist shows that we are acting swiftly in this area.

My Lords, I know that the Minister has to be careful with the language that he uses. He politely referred to President Putin’s propaganda. The right word is not “propaganda”, as that might contain an element of truth; surely it should be President Putin’s “lies”.

Yes, I would be happy to say that lies are being disseminated from the Kremlin about what is going on in Ukraine. That is why we have taken action to stop the poisonous propaganda that RT has been propagating on Vladimir Putin’s behalf.