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Lord Fowler: I should like to speak briefly to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, of which I am a co-signatory. I agree strongly with everything the noble Lord said. I make my position clear. I am not opposed to foreign ownership in the media or in other areas. We take some pride in inward investment. Both Front Benches and political parties compete on how much inward investment has been brought into the United Kingdom. One benefit in the media area was the entry of Mr Murdoch into newspapers. He took on the reactionary practices of the then print unions. Therefore, I am not opposed to foreign ownership. Sometimes it has done some good. The noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and I have one requirement. If we are to have free competition without restriction, then the competition has to be free. One country should have the same rules as the other. Access to one market should be matched with access to the other. We are talking about a level playing field. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, it has nothing to do with anti-Americanism; that is an absurd point to make. It is a sensible question of trade negotiation.

However, the proposals of this Government have nothing whatever to do with a level playing field. In future, they propose that United States companies will be able to take over ITV, but that British companies will be excluded from doing the same in the United States—and that applies not just to NBC but also to all the other American television companies.

I find it both strange, and, frankly, unacceptable that the position that I have just been putting was the position of Her Majesty's Government a few months ago. It is not a position that has suddenly been invented on the Back Benches on both sides of the Chamber. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, rightly said, it was the Government's position in November 2001, when they said:

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Therefore, the Government have a certain amount of explaining to do in this regard. They have conducted what I can only describe as a most amazing U-turn on their policy. We want to know why they have done so. Why have they changed their policy?

I have listened to quite a few debates on the issue and have taken note of several ministerial replies. But, so far, I have not heard any sensible explanation of why the Government have changed their policy from what it was 18 months ago to the one that they hold today. There is no mystery about the view of those like my honourable friend Mr Whittingdale in another place who simply want the destruction of any barriers. That is a perfectly consistent case, although I do not happen to agree with it. However, the position of the Government is not remotely consistent with the position that they have held up until this time.

Can the Minister tell the Committee how the Government got from where they once were to where they are today? Why has the policy gone from where it was to where it is today? What is the motivation? I notice that the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, says that the Government are opening negotiations to secure reciprocal arrangements with the Americans, but this is after the policy has changed. Like the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, I find that statement pretty astonishing. It seems to be the strangest form of negotiation to give away your main negotiating card before such negotiations begin. I do not see the sense in the Government's proposals.

If the Government were saying, "We don't want reciprocal arrangements", that would be fine. I could then at least understand the case that they were making. However, that is not the case that they are making. The Government are saying, "We do want reciprocal arrangements; and, incidentally, just to encourage the negotiation along, we are giving away our position at the start". I do not believe that they will get very far with that approach.

Alternatively, are we to be told that it was the force of public argument and public debate, together with the pressure of public opinion, that forced the Government into this change of policy? I imagine that the boards of the ITV companies may well support the move because, self-evidently, it will increase the value of their companies. It would mean a bigger market for their companies and, therefore, the price of such companies would increase—provided that they are sold. Judging by the letters and telephone calls that I have received on the matter, it does not seem to me that there is a great deal of evidence of general public opinion to the effect that the Government must take this step. Indeed, I suggest that it is rather the reverse.

Frankly, as I said, the Minister has some explaining to do. The very least that the noble Baroness can do at the end of the debate will be to tell us why the policy has changed in such a dramatic way. Further, given that the Government's aim is still to get those reciprocal arrangements, can she say how that change of policy at this stage will help the Government in their negotiations? That is what the Government have to explain.

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1.15 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I have been greatly impressed by the speeches and the writing of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on these issues. I am especially glad that he has tabled Amendment No. 285. I do not have the noble Lord's breadth of experience, but I was a BBC television producer for some eight years. Therefore, in a sense, I have been brought up on the public service broadcasting ethic. Frankly, in the face of the opposition expressed throughout the country, I am staggered that the Government intend to go ahead with these proposals.

The fact that they are trying to push through these proposals by way of the Bill means that this Chamber is faced with a very serious issue. We, and we alone—another place has not really inspected the Bill—can do something about the situation. I am sure that the amendment will not be put to the vote today, but it is most important that it should be carried when it comes to the proper stage. If we create the opportunity for News International to dominate, and to do so even more than is the case at present, such proposals will allow this vast corporation to take even more power. I am absolutely convinced that it could become a media octopus, spreading its tentacles all over television, including the take-over of Channel 5. This would mean repercussions for all the channels, especially for the BBC.

We are talking about grave perils for British broadcasting that will emerge as a result of the enactment of this Bill. The Government may say, "All right, if such perils emerge, we can deal with the problem: we shall impose a requirement on Ofcom to review the situation". If that is the case, what will happen? Ofcom will be directed to look at regional broadcasting, news, and so on. But those concerned will simply patch things up. Patching of any kind is, by definition, second rate: it cannot be as good as the original. It would be disastrous to allow this situation to develop.

A few days ago, in the Guardian, Tessa Jowell accused the sponsors of these amendments of "demonisation". It is actually a good word, but that represents yet another error on the part of Ministers, especially Tessa Jowell, for whom I have a very high regard. If anything characterises the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, apart from his brilliance of presentation, it is his moderation. Throughout all of these debates, his moderation has been the key note of his proposals. It beats me how anyone could accuse him of demonisation. The fact that they would seek to denigrate the sponsors of these amendments shows the level and the measure of the Government's concern, though I am sure that my noble friend the Minister on the Front Bench today will not indulge in anything of the sort. I believe that move to be both foolish and unjustified. Indeed, I should like to see that word withdrawn. One can use the word "naive", and so on, but "demonisation" is in a different category.

I have tried to be brief because I know that other noble Lords wish to speak, and I wish to hear again from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. I support this group of amendments, especially Amendment No. 285. I know

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that my noble friend the Minister on the Front Bench will do all that she can to ensure that careful consideration is given to all the comments made during the debate. I hope that she will be able to do something about the situation at a later stage.

Lord Bernstein of Craigweil: I do not regard television companies in the United States as bogeymen. When I worked for Granada Television, we embarked upon a number of co-productions with American companies. On the whole, we had a very constructive relationship with them. Indeed, we sold "Brideshead Revisited" and "Jewel in the Crown" to the US, which were extremely successful. However, that does not mean that we should give ownership to American companies.

The point of an American television company buying an English company is not to invest in it. American companies have two very valuable/expensive assets—the first is their production facilities, and the second is their programme library. It is important for them to maximise the revenue from those two facilities.

In the television world, the whole point of acquiring another company is distribution. If it increases distribution, it increases profit, as my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington pointed out. If American companies bought English companies, we would get not greater inward investment but the sale of American programmes in this country.

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