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The noble Lord concluded his remarks with a quote from the Puttnam committee, which I was going to take as the simple proposition on which to base my speech. He referred to this being the clearest and most straightforward way to make sure that we did not have a major terrestrial channel, a major newspaper group and a dominant satellite network open to shared ownership.
Noble Lords must be clear that the purpose of the plurality test as it is about to be added to this Bill by the government amendments, which we will debate later, is not to impose a plurality test. The purpose is to enable a media plurality test to be carried out in the event of a qualifying merger.
Therefore the test is very conditional and it is all in the hands of Ministers. The test may be effective if Ministers decide to act, but that is a very big if. We know, because Ministers have told us, that the Government took the view that there were very good reasons for removing the restrictions on a major newspaper owning or controlling Channel 5, although in response to repeated questions since, it has emerged that the only difference they can spell out is the difference in size between Channel 3 and Channel 5 at the present time.
We know that the Government intend to be restrictive in their use of this new plurality power. There is no guarantee that the Government would use it to prevent a major national newspaper owning Channel 5the Minister made that perfectly clear on Report. I refer to his remarks in col. 915 of the Official Report of 2nd July 2003.
We are told the Government will publish guidelines setting out in more detail the areas where the test will generally be applied. I am not sure whether these guidelines have yet been issued. In any case, guidelines are only guidelines. Therefore, we have before us what might be termed the "if, maybe, possibly, and then again, possibly not" clause.
However, the arguments against allowing a newspaper which has a national market share of 20 per cent owning Channel 5 are immediate and compelling. They do not depend on some future increase in Channel 5's market share. Those arguments were put with great conviction, with admirable brevity and clarity and with unanswerable logic by my noble friend Lord Glentoran, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench in Committee. I agreed with everything he said then. He provided grounds enough to support the certainty of the amendment before we again fog it all with the uncertainty provided by the Government's plurality test.
There is a another compelling reason for Parliament removing the uncertainty. We know that there has never been a moment in the history of the modern media when its barons have not been prepared to exert
As the Bill has gone through Parliament, pressure has been applied to both the Government and the Opposition to allow the giant oligarchies the maximum freedom to exploit their already great power. I am alarmed at the prospect that we leave all this uncertainty in the hands of Ministers, who will inevitably and unavoidably come under greater pressure, no matter which party is in power. That pressure will be political and financial to allow the great media moguls to have their way.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I accept the test that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has put before us; namely, when we go into the Lobbies today, we should be thinking hard about how in 10 or 20 years we shall answer for our vote in the light of developments. I accept the test and have thought hard about the subject as a result. I want to make only three brief observations.
First, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, described the committee's recommendations as a trifle. I do not see it like that. I believe that in the plurality test we have a solid pillar which requires little by way of gothic buttresses to be added to it. It is sufficient to stand.
Secondly, although there are dangers such as those described by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, there is another. That is that Channel 5 does not do very well. In five or 10 years' time, the only people who might be prepared to invest in it are those who would not on plurality grounds be ideal. The Minister at the time will be able to account for that, but we are legislating for five, 10, 15 or 20 years.
If Channel 5 goes belly-up due to the fact that no one is prepared to invest in it because the law we have passed allows no flexibility for changing circumstances, that might be regrettable, particularly for those who get pleasure from Channel 5. It is, after all, a channel contributing to plurality, but it has no guaranteed existence. That is a matter that this House should weigh.
I want, thirdly, to comment on a matter that weighs heavily with me. In my time in this Houseit is short compared with most noble LordsI have known no other Bill that has changed so much during the course of its passage here. The Government have been prepared to make many fundamental changes. Indeed, one only has to look at today's Marshalled List to see the number of government amendments. They have not been tabled because the Government have cocked things up, but tabled in response to the views put forward by this House.
Like many noble Lords, I know the kind of arguments that occur among Ministers when considering amendments which come from this House. Many people in another place and elsewhere say, "Oh, don't pay any attention to them"; or they say, "If you give them concessions, what's the good? They just want more. They are insatiable, that lot. Take them on. Ignore them". Perhaps the Licensing Bill is an example of that.
Thanks to my noble friend Lord Puttnam, we have achieved a remarkable result with this Bill. It is beyond what most of us would have believed. We are now right, particularly Members on this side of the House, to say, "The deal is done. It is a success. We have achieved the objectives we wanted to achieve and now we will support the Government through the rest of the Bill".
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I was a member of the Joint Committee and I must remind your Lordships that we put forward a modest proposal that Ofcom should consider this matter. The Government's concession is that Ministers should consider the position. I totally share the view of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that Ministers are subject to enormous pressure. The committee was united in the view that Ofcom should consider the position. It did not, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, recommend setting the situation in tablets of stone. It said, "Allow this body, which is neutral and not subject to political pressures, to consider the position".
I urge your Lordships to support Amendment No. 1 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Ministers are politicians and are subject to pressure. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell is right about thathe was one of them. I urge the House not to follow the honeyed words that we have just heard.
Baroness Cohen of Pimlico: My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The plurality test, though useful, will not quite do the job, particularly if it is in the hands of Ministers to apply it. I was prepared to consider the plurality test when Ofcom, which one hoped would be independent of Ministers, had the application in its hands.
Media are political. We would do well not to be too confident about how culture stands up to anyone else's agenda. It does not stand up very wellit never has. I therefore consider it important to put in place as many bodies charged with considering the preservation of our culture which do not include Ministers. I therefore support the amendment.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I want briefly to support every word the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen, has just spoken. In particular, I want to echo what was said by my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lord Pilkington. I do not believe that the plurality test stands on its own and I greatly hope that your Lordships will support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
I sadly add this. While I have every admiration for the way in which my noble friend Lady Buscombe has led the opposition to the Bill, I deeply regret this lacuna. I speak for myself and not for her. I suspect that she is under heavy pressure from some gentleman down the corridor, whose name I can never remember, who has given contrary instructions in this particular context. I can say only that I deeply regret that and I shall certainly disregard them with some happiness and support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
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