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Lord Lipsey: My noble friend Lord Bragg said that the arguments in favour of the amendment bear repeating. Nevertheless, I shall forbear from repeating them and say one word: viewers. If the Government had brought before your Lordships or the other place a convincing rationale for believing that viewers get a better news service as a result of the existing arrangement, I would stand behind them. There are compelling reasons to think otherwise. Why should companies put a lot of money into something when they can own only a maximum of 40 per cent of it between them?
The integration of regional news with national news is by far the biggest weakness of bulletins at the moment. It can partly be tackled under existing structures but not properly. Some of us favour the amendment because we want better competition in news for viewersnot to please the companies, which are mere instruments, but to please the people we ultimately service. The Government have got to be
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I have listened with great interest to what has been said and agree with every single word. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, questioned why the pre-legislative committee had been a little cautious. Perhaps the answer is that we have had time to reflect. Certainly everything that I have heard and read has more and more convinced me that the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, are the right way to go.
It is constantly leaked about the place that the Government are not going to give way on anything in the Bill. I hope that they recognise the strength of feeling in the Committee and have had time to think more carefully.
Lord Bernstein of Craigweil: As someone who works in ITV, it seems to me totally bizarre that it should be the only major television channel in the world that cannot own its own news service. My experience of working within a consortium in the broadcasting industry is not a happy one. To persuade all shareholders to agree a policy, to change and sometimes to take a risk is extremely difficult. I am sure that the Government's proposed structure for ITN will put it at a disadvantage in competing with other news services.
Baroness Blackstone: It is not trueas was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Howethat the Government are resisting everything. They have made a number of concessions and will be making more later today.
If Amendments Nos. 202 and 203 were agreed, there would be no nomination system for news. ITV would be free to appoint any news provider that it chose but it would have to meet the same quality and funding requirements that the current system sets out. Amendment No. 204 would allow the modification rather than the repeal of the requirement in Clause 276. We do not accept that all the changes suggested are appropriate at present, although we acknowledge that there may come a time when part or all of what some Members of the Committee are advocating will become appropriate and be acceptable.
We are already loosening the ownership restrictions, moving from a 20 per cent to a 40 per cent limit to encourage more investment and more dynamic management. The new limit means that instead of a minimum of five owners, ITN can have three.
As to our arguments for retaining the other restrictions at this stage, TV is a vital source of information and opinion. Viewers think of TV news as trustworthy and impartial. We want to make sure that viewers continue having a choice of high-quality, editorially independent national news from free-to-air television. The nominated news provider system ensures that ITV News, as the main competitor to the BBC, will play a major role in contributing to that choice.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I do not believe that any Member of the Committee has suggested anything different. Surely the Minister is not suggestingif she is, she is sadly wrongthat ITN was anything other than that prior to 1990, when it was wholly owned by ITV.
Baroness Blackstone: No, I am not. ITN has always been an extremely good and reliable news service, watched by a great many people. That does not mean that I should accept entirely my noble friend's arguments.
Licence obligations and other content rules in the Bill can go a considerable way to maintaining high standards but the news provider requirement for Channel 3 provides an additional safeguard in securing a news service that is independent from ITV and the commercial pressures that it may sometimes face.
The Joint Committee agreed that we were right to include the nominated news provision. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, accepts that is so and that I do not need to quote the Joint Committee.
As to Amendment No. 293, the Bill already proposes to relax the ownership limit from the current 20 per cent ceiling. We recognise that the limit is inhibitive to investment and management. The newly relaxed limit will provide ITN's ownership and decision-making structure with a greater degree of flexibility and dynamism. Ownership limits are still necessary. A 40 per cent limit on Channel 3 licences, whether alone or in combination, will ensure that the service is independent of the licensees but it will not force any of the existing shareholders to disinvest. The limit merely reflects the current position, which is that five owners hold 20 per cent each. Two of those owners are ITV companies. At the same time, the 40 per cent figure is a good balance between the push for good regulation and securing independence in the news provider.
On Amendments Nos. 205 and 206, we are not suggesting that the current arrangements will remain in place for ever. On the contrary, as the TV market develops that should ensure that the BBC has sufficient competition and the need for ITV to have a separately-owned news provider will be removed.
The Bill already gives the Secretary of State power to repeal the nominated news provider system altogether or to change the limits on ownership of the provider. That means that we will be able to change the restrictions on ownership of a nominated news
The first review must be carried out within three years of Clause 384 coming into effectin other words, quite soonbut there is nothing to prevent Ofcom conducting a review sooner than that. If it were persuaded in the course of a review that an alternative system of ownership structure would safeguard the quality, impartiality and investment in news on ITV, changes may be made sooner rather than later. The Joint Committee also recommended an early review and we believe that that is a very sensible recommendation. No doubt Ofcom will consider it carefully.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that I do not believe, as he claimed, that the world has changed so dramatically in the past six or nine months since the committee, of which he was a member, reported. In line with that thinking and after listening to the arguments which have been put this evening, we will look into the possibility of increasing flexibility for the future. One possible avenue is, as Members of the Committee have said, to separate the nomination process and ownership provisions from those aimed at maintaining high quality and competition in news provision and of securing the adequacy of the resources of the news provider. If that proved to be appropriate, that would keep open for the future the option of removing part of the news provider system that requires the nomination of news providers without needing to sweep away altogether the other protections built into the system. I make one concession and that is that we will consider this matter further and bring forward amendments at Report.
To conclude, we acknowledge that the nominated news provider system may require changing in the future, but we do not believe that we have quite reached that point. ITV is going to face very considerable changes with the removal of the ownership rules which currently prevent a single ITV. We want to wait for Ofcom to be able to assess properly the new environment when there may be a single ITV, and make recommendations that are based on Ofcom's research and expertise. For the time being we believe that the system and the ownership limits associated with it will serve to buttress the quality and the independence of the ITV news service, which I believe everyone in this House wishes to see. We believe that that is particularly important at this time as we reposition our media against the newly deregulated backdrop.
Lord Bragg: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask a question and make an observation with regard to her response as to why the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, might have modified his position.
Sadly, I did not hear an answer to the question as to why ITV is so uniquely penalised in being prevented from owning its own news provider unlike any other major company in the world. It means that ITV is shackled; the ITV regional news is in a straitjacket and ITN is hobbled. I still do not understand why it should be so uniquely penalised. It is a very straightforward question and I would love an answer.
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