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Lord Wakeham: This probably reveals me in my true colours. As regards my earlier remarks on a previous amendment, I was very supportive of the Bill. I listened to a great deal today and as the debate continued I tended to be more and more supportive of it and less supportive of some of the amendments which were moved. I may find myself in the rather unique position at Report of voting with the Government and against many of my colleagues in the House. I know that it is not normal for a former Chief Whip to say things like that.
Having said that, I agree with the Minister in particular as regards what he said in response to the first debate this morning on Amendment No. 280A. I do not believe that there is any serious dispute about the need to take the public interest into account. The Minister set out the logic of this Bill in a very clear way. Certain parts of the media, television and radio need licences and, quite rightly, the public interest is controlled by the granting, withdrawing or the modifying of such licences.
The Bill is about that important issue. I have not addressed the Committee on that subject at all because I am concerned about the newspaper industry. The newspaper industry does not need licences. Anyone can start one up, but there is still a public interest which has been and continues to be dealt with by competition law. The Bill does not change that and I am happy with that position.
My concern is that the logic set out by the Government is not followed in the Bill in the way that it should be. The Bill gives Ofcom some responsibility for newspapers. I would like to see Ofcom removed from the responsibility of the newspaper industry entirely. I do not think it is wise for a regulator with a primary role in the statutory oversight of broadcasting content and licensing of the electronic media to be involved also in newspaper mergers. There is a danger that Ofcom will become involved in the editorial content of newspapers and indeed in editorial personnel. That is a slippery slope down which we should not tread.
There is no justification for a number of things I heard in today's debate; for example, that newspapers must be unbiasedaccurate and truthful, yes, but partisan and prejudiced are in my view the essential stuff of a free press and I wish to preserve those qualities. For that reason, logic indicates that newspapers and their control should be removed from the Bill. I am therefore unhappy about Clause 370. My remarks could be repeated about Clauses 373, 375,
I suspect that my proposals would make Ofcom a better organisation and that some people who think this is the right way forth are not in a position to say much about it. It is a dangerous slope to seek to bring the newspaper industry into the Bill, with which I have a great deal of sympathy. The Government are handling the television and radio side of it better than perhaps the debate has given them credit for. But I am still very concerned about the effect on the newspaper industry.
Baroness Buscombe: I support my noble friend Lord Wakeham and have added my name to his on all the amendments in this group. As he said, we want to remove Ofcom entirely from responsibility for newspapers. We oppose the clauses concerning newspaper mergers for a number of reasons. I hope that the Minister will look on our arguments favourably, not least because there is a great deal of concern in the industry surrounding the Government's proposals. I believe that the Government are fully aware of that.
The new regime presented in the Bill will mean that four regulators will be involved in making references in investigating the merger and determining what measures should be taken following any reference: the OFT, Ofcom, the Secretary of State and the Competition Commission. We are concerned that a newspaper wishing to become involved in a merger would be required to negotiate with all four regulators on exactly the same matters. Surely that is overly bureaucratic and burdensome for all those involved, not to mention time-consuming for Ofcom.
We therefore propose that Ofcom be taken out of the regime entirely. I appreciate that this may seem to be a drastic measure, but for the reasons I am about to give, we believe that it would be beneficial for newspapers and for the regulators involved.
Concerns have been expressed beyond your Lordships' House that Ofcom's capacity for content regulation might impinge on its activities in other areas. Ofcom will be dealing with sectors in which there has been spectrum scarcity and in which some content regulation has been justified. We would appreciate some reassurance from the Government that Ofcom's content powers will have no bearing on its role in newspaper mergers, and how will they ensure that that is the case. Alternatively, would the Government consider removing Ofcom from the mergers regime entirely?
Does the Minister agree that it is a regressive step to grant a body with a powerful content arm a say in newspaper matters, a body which, with all due respect, is completely out of touch with our tradition of a free press? Does the Minister further agree that the OFT is perfectly well equipped to deal with newspaper mergers in the same way as any competition issue is
Baroness Blackstone: I am aware of the concerns in the newspaper industry about Ofcom's role in this area. However, the role will be advisory and limited to the specified newspaper public interest considerations set out in the legislation. It will take no decisions and will have no role in newspaper mergers unless the Secretary of State intervenes in a particular case. Furthermore, unlike the OFT's competition analysis, Ofcom's advice on plurality will not be binding on Ministers.
It has been suggested that the advisory role contemplated for Ofcom should instead be carried out by the OFT, which I believe lies behind the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. However, that would be contrary to the thrust of the reforms of merger control set out in the Bill and in the Enterprise Act 2002, which is to establish and empower the OFT as a specialist competition authority.
I should also make it clear that, under the current regime, the OFT has no track record in advising on public interest issues relating to the accurate presentation of the news, freedom of expression of opinion or plurality of views in newspapers in relation to mergers. Instead DTI officials have responsibility for this advisory function under the current special newspaper merger regime, which I think answers the question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe.
As the independent media and communications regulator, Ofcom is the body best placed to advise the Secretary of State on the specified newspaper public interest considerations so as to help her decide whether to make a reference or, following a Competition Commission report, to implement the remedial action required. DTI know-how and expertise in this area can be shared with Ofcom as part of the transitional arrangements for the introduction of the new regime and, over time, Ofcom's expertise in this area will develop.
Ofcom's involvement will also help to make sure that it can comment on the newspaper merger regime when it carries out its triennial review. Such reviews may cover ways in which the regime could be improved and, indeed, whether there continues to be a need for such a regime.
We have also seen repeated assertions in the press that the provisions of the Bill will lead inexorably to regulation of the press. Contrary to those reports, the proposals set out in the Bill do not give Ofcom any role in content regulation. I want to assure the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that the Government are not bringing in statutory regulation of the newspaper industry through the back door.
It should also be borne in mind that the merger control regime assesses the impact of structural changes. Assessing whether or not a purchaser is likely to have an impact on accurate presentation of news, freedom of expression of opinion, the plurality of views available in newspapers given the purchaser's track record and, if necessary, imposing remedies to ensure that the public interest is protected following such structural changes is clearly different from ongoing monitoring of content.
The newspaper public interest considerations are only relevant to assessing the impact of a given merger on the public interest and have no relevance outside that context. As a result, Ofcom's advisory role on such issues cannot lead to the sort of creeping regulation feared. It is significant that an advisory role for Ofcom was supported by the pre-legislative scrutiny committee.