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Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I tabled Amendment No. 9 during the Recess, unaware that the noble Baroness had also tabled an amendment to the same effect. I hope she will forgive me if I confine my remarks in support only to Amendment No. 9. I will study her remarks on other amendments and it may be that I shall support some of them.
When I was checking that my amendment was correct, counting the lines and so forth, I mistakenly picked up my original copy of the Communications Bill as it was published in November 2002. I searched in vain for the provisionit is not there. It is not even in subsection (1), which is a subordinate consideration. It suddenly appeared when the Bill left the House of Commons.
Had it been a reaction to the recommendations of the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, it would have appeared in the November version. It did not. I believe that far too much status has been given to plurality. I do not want to sound like a monopolistyou cannot be a media monopolist nowadays, however benevolent you might bebut I simply ask: in whose interest is plurality of ownership? If it is given equal status, as this does, to the preceding provision seeking a wide range of programming, what happens if enforcing plurality diminishes the range of programming, as I believe it inexorably would? As I mentioned at Second Reading, if one owner has two services, it is within his interest to make them different. Two competitive owners are likely to compete for the most lucrative audience and the wide range of programming will be reduced.
Furthermore, the same owner can amortise the inevitable overheads of any business over two services, leaving more to go into programming rather than accounts, administration and sales. In addition, competition will lead to more funds being diverted from programming into advertising and marketing against the competition without improving the quality. I therefore ask: in whose interest is plurality? It certainly is not the interest of the listener.
Arguably, the advertising industry might say, "We want plurality because we can play one against the other". In fact, no media owner enjoys monopoly of a particular market. If people do not like local radio, they can go to television which subdivides their signal so that, as in my case, STV can offer Glasgow or Edinburgh, and they are increasingly subdivided even further. Even advertisers are sufficiently catered for.
Furthermore, how many of your Lordships live in areas in which there are two local newspapers? There are few indeedif any. The reason is that they are serving markets so small that there is no room for two. Yet, if we are to make achieving plurality a major objective of Ofcom, it cannot ignore that. It may refuse mergers that would otherwise be sensible and pass other tests.
Diversity of content and a wide range of content is important for the listener; plurality of ownership is not. This paragraph should go. It was not in the original Bill. I do not know its history of introduction. It cannot be traced to the acceptance of a Puttnam recommendation, otherwise it would have appeared in November. I hope that the paragraph is deleted.
The combination of the two amendments means an unfortunate downgrading of the objective of plurality from the general part of the Billin Clause 3to Clause 384 which deals with the review by Ofcom of ownership matters. I believe that pluralitymulti-ownershipis highly desirable in all forms of media, including the forms especially mentioned here; television and radio services.
That is not to say that all mergers are undesirable and that small is always beautiful. It is to say that diversity and plurality are powerful objective goods for a democracy because of the range of opinions and views that should be available. A lesser argument, but none the less important in the broader terms of Reithian objectives of public service, is that a broader range of entertainment possibilities of highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow and so forth, is also desirable. It seems to me that diversity is more likely if there is some degree of multi-ownership. There is a severe risk to diversity if there is no multi-ownership.
Since the 1960s, the laws relating to newspaper mergers have had in their legislative embodiment objectives enshrined in law which says that both diversity and plurality of ownership are to be taken into account as part of the broad public interest objectives that the competition authorities should ensure. There is nothing new in the combination of diversity and plurality in the realm of legislation. As regards newspaper mergers, in the past 20 to 30 years it has been desirable to have those provisions. Indeed, I take the view that the more they are used now in a broader way to cover radio and television services, the better. I say to my noble friend Lord Gordon that we need not concern ourselves overmuch with the specific
Baroness Buscombe: Does the noble Lord agree that there is an enormous difference between taking into account plurality of providers and the fact that this Bill is asking that Ofcom be required to secure the maintenance of plurality of providers?
Lord Borrie: The noble Baroness is right. I was referring specifically to the problem to which she referred, namely, mergers, how Ofcom would deal with them and whether the Government intended that the objective of the maintenance of plurality would be present in those circumstances. I was saying that it would be an objective for Ofcom in those circumstances. But in a merger issue the final decider is not Ofcom, but the Competition Commission. It would weigh up the kinds of points made by the noble Baroness and by my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane; namely, whether the desirability of achieving plurality be countered in some way by the view that a merger would be much more effective and allowable even though the number of owners was being reduced because entertainment, information and various other services would be improved. That would be weighed up. No doubt consideration would be given to the number of different owners left in the market place in determining that issue. In other words, each case would be dealt with on its own. But to have the statement in Clause 3(2)(d),
Lord McNally: I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, replies to this mini debate because I want him to resist this amendment. I promise that I shall not hold it against him in the tally which I am keeping. He can have this one free.
Whatever its parentageperhaps the Minister can tell us where it came fromI consider it the kind of good, robust amendment that should be within the general duties of Ofcom. As regards local radio, and a great deal of the argument which the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, advanced, I even know the jargon. I was told that it is called "hotelling" when two radio stations put out exactly the same programming to capture the same market.
One of the paradoxes of the new technologies is that when they appeared on the horizon we were promised genuinely local radio, which the communities would own. Indeed, I remember when the cable service
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: Before the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, replies, I find myself very much in agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said. With apologies to my own Front Bench, I do not quite understand the purpose of knocking out the duty in Clause 3 and in a sense re-inserting it again in Clause 333. If there is a difference here it is that Clause 3, under the heading of "General duties of OFCOM", refers to securing the maintenance of a plurality of providers of different television and radio services. I believe that one must accept that that is stronger language than that which appears in Clause 333, which refers to having regard to the need for the maintenance of plurality.
Baroness Buscombe: I hope that my noble friend will not mind me intervening. The second amendment relates to Clause 384, which deals with the review of media ownership. As the Minister has already said, the fact that it is further down the Bill does not make it any less important.
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