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Media Literacy

Volume 823: debated on Monday 20 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their decision not to include media literacy provisions in the Online Safety Bill, whether they intend to impose an updated statutory duty on Ofcom relating to media literacy; and if so, when.

My Lords, Ofcom has a statutory duty to promote media literacy under the Communications Act 2003. A clause in the draft Online Safety Bill sought to clarify Ofcom’s responsibilities under this duty. Since then, Ofcom has published a strategy paper outlining its plan to expand its media literacy programme, including going further than that draft clause. It was therefore no longer necessary to include these clarifications in the primary legislation.

My Lords, Covid showed the danger of conspiracy theories, while research shows that most internet users want the skills to judge for themselves what is true or false. As the Minister said, Ofcom has indeed published a strategy for promoting media literacy, but this will not be enough. Will the Minister undertake to look at restoring media literacy provisions to the Bill to put them on a statutory footing? Could he also tell your Lordships’ House what is being done to ensure that schools equip our young people with the digital and media literacy skills they need?

The Online Safety Bill includes provisions to strengthen Ofcom’s media literacy functions. Its transparency reporting and information gathering powers will include media literacy, giving Ofcom greater visibility of what the industry is doing. The Secretary of State will have powers to direct Ofcom’s media literacy activity in emergency circumstances—for example, where there is significant threat to public health—and, following a recommendation from the Joint Committee, media literacy is also included in the risk assessment duties. The noble Baroness is right that schools have an important part to play in equipping young people with the skills they need to navigate the internet safely. Citizenship education covers this, as indeed do subjects such as history, English and art, which encourage people to think critically about information that they receive in whatever medium.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, particularly on Common Sense Media and NewsGuard. I am sure that the Minister will have seen the EU code of practice on disinformation, which was published last week. Does he agree with me that there is much more to this than just media literacy? There has to be a comprehensive strategy that includes the role of platforms, the ability to cut off money from some of the sites which spread disinformation, transparency on political advertising and better research. Will the Minister commit to a much more comprehensive approach to tackling disinformation on the internet than simply media literacy?

Misinformation and disinformation are subjects which are covered in many ways through the Online Safety Bill, which will force companies to tackle harmful misinformation and disinformation, ensuring that they are accountable for dealing with this damaging content on their services. My noble friend is right that we must look at these issues in the round.

My Lords, I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media. The element of literacy in relation to the media with regard to religion is deplorable, and it needs very seriously to be considered.

I am afraid that I am not sure that I fully follow the point that the noble and learned Baroness makes. If she is talking about the importance of respecting freedom of expression and views and protecting debates through the Online Safety Bill, as well as guarding against misinformation and disinformation, there are important protections in the Bill to make sure that we can have free and unbridled debate. However, if I have misunderstood, I will be very happy to speak to her afterwards in more detail.

My Lords, I remind the Minister that, as recently as April, his department was making the case for more powers for Ofcom in its Year 2 Online Media Literacy Action Plan, so the Minister’s replies today have been somewhat extraordinary. Given the extent of misinformation and disinformation on social media, is it not absolutely clear that we need more specific powers and duties on Ofcom, in particular to ensure that Ofcom can set minimum standards for media literacy initiatives? Why do not the Government commit to put these in the Bill?

Through the Online Safety Bill, we are giving Ofcom strengthened media literacy functions on transparency reporting, information gathering and the other areas I set out. However, through its strategy announced in December last year, Ofcom has set out its own expanded work programme to discharge its existing duty, which includes pilots, campaigns to promote media literacy, establishing best practice and creating guidance on evaluation, so we are pleased to see that it is using and extending the powers that it has.

My Lords, many digital literacy programmes are provided free of charge to schools by private companies with an emphasis that teaches children about user behaviour rather than the risks created by those very same companies. Given the lack of provision in the Bill, perhaps the Minister could say what plans Her Majesty’s Government have to ensure that schools are not simply marketing tech products but offering a holistic digital literacy to children that is independent of those tech companies?

Digital literacy is a key priority in the computing national curriculum in England, which equips people with knowledge, understanding and skills to use the internet creatively and purposefully. Through citizenship education and other subjects, as I mentioned, we are making sure that schoolchildren are equipped with the skills that they need, and of course the companies themselves have a role to play in delivering and funding media literacy education. We welcome the steps that platforms have already taken, but we believe that they can go further to empower and educate their users.

My Lords, the 2003 media literacy duty on Ofcom that the Minister referred to predates social media and urgently needs updating. Carole Cadwalladr’s work has shown how online misinformation has potentially perverted our democracy. The Ofcom strategy is insufficient. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Media Literacy in advance of the Online Safety Bill being introduced in this House to try to resolve this problem?

I would be very happy to meet the noble Lord and other members ahead of the Online Safety Bill, during which I know we will debate this important area in greater detail. He is right that much has happened since the Communications Act 2003 was passed, but Ofcom’s own strategy published in December last year shows its up-to-date thinking and work in this important and evolving area.

My Lords, could my noble friend help those of us who are struggling to understand what exactly media literacy means? Is it about the truthfulness of content or about how to access content, and what on earth can the Government do about that?

It is about equipping users to decide for themselves what is truthful and giving them the critical skills to look inquisitively at the material that they see online, which often conflicts with other sources, and make their mind up. That was an important skill long before people received information from the internet. It applies just as much to traditional media, such as books and other areas of learning, but is particularly important online.

My Lords, I want to follow on from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. Given that we are talking about the safety of children and vulnerable people, to what extent will Ofcom’s duty incorporate the broad range of emerging technologies such as the metaverse and Web3, which include virtual reality and facial recognition?

My Lords, the strongest protections in the Online Safety Bill are for children. We are making sure that, through that Bill, we are protecting young people from harmful or inappropriate content such as grooming, bullying, pornography and the promotion of self-harm and eating disorders. There are many provisions in the Bill looking at these.

No, they have had about three goes.

I was a member of the Puttnam committee that gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the 2003 Act. The truth is that Ofcom put on the back burner its responsibilities in this area until it came under pressure by the fact that the new Online Safety Bill was going to increase its responsibilities in this area. I think the Minister’s answers so far have been very complacent given that, since 2003, we have become much more aware of the abuses and dangers inherent in this technology. We must give Ofcom more specific legislative powers in the coming Bill.

My Lords, I have pointed to some of the provisions in the Online Safety Bill which will strengthen Ofcom’s powers in this area. The Government are taking action as well. Our media literacy programme is supported by £2.5 million of funding in this financial year alone, so the Government are also acting to make sure that we are strengthening civil society groups and others who have a role to play in making sure that people are kept safe and well informed online.