|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I am glad that the Minister said that some of the supporters of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, were serious. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was also serious. Would the Minister not agree that he made almost every single point that he made tonight when speaking on the subject on 2nd July on Report? The Minister might also give us the credit for reading ahead to the amendments that we will discuss later. It was only after reading this amendment and re-reading what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, that I came to the firm decision to support this amendment. I hope that my noble friends will also support it.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I absolve the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, of any blame, because he put his name to the amendment at a late stage. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, however, tabled his amendment before I had tabled my plurality amendment, despite the fact that he withdrew it on the argument that he had to see the plurality amendment before he tabled his own amendment. That argument will not wash.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but the committee wanted Ofcom. The great worry that the Minister has not dealt with is that the Minister will decide the criteria. There is considerable worry on this side of House about the pressure imposed on Ministers. I hope that the Minister will answer that point.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was going to answer that point. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, cannot take me very seriously if he thinks that I would ignore that point. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, seems to base his argument on three questionswhat happens if Channel 5 grows, how we ensure that Channel 5 does not fall into the wrong hands, and the contention that any protections offered by the plurality test could be swept the way on a Minister's say so. That is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington.
I will take each point in turn. First, what happens if Channel 5 grows? The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, referred to that point. We would very much like to see Channel 5 grow. Channel 5 has just over 6 per cent of the audience and a reach of only 80 per cent of the country. We do not think that Channel 5 is large enough to need protecting in the same way as ITV. That is the difference between Channel 3 and Channel 5. There is a range of protections and controls that the Bill will put in place in the event that Channel 5 grows to the size of ITV. For example, Ofcom could alter the channel's original programme requirements, or the quota for independent productions could be changed by order by the Secretary of State. If Channel 5's audience share becomes broadly equivalent to that of ITV, the Secretary of State may introduce an appointed news provider scheme similar to that for the Channel 3 system, or Ofcom could change the obligations for Channel 3.
How do we ensure that Channel 5 does not fall into the wrong hands? There are the plurality tests. As I said, the tests will allow the Secretary of StateI shall come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenfordto intervene in cases in which she believes that a merger causes sufficient plurality concerns for it to be blocked or for conditions to be attached. The test will enable us to examine a newspaper acquisition of Channel 5 with a view to ensuring that a minimum level of plurality is maintained. The test will also address the need for a plurality of owners, a wide range of high quality broadcasting calculated to appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests, and a genuine commitment to Ofcom's standards code.
There is also a power for Ofcom to review the Channel 5 licence when it changes hands and, if necessary, impose new licence conditions on the new licence holder, if the change is thought to be prejudicial to aspects of the service. There are rules in place that will prevent an unreasonable amount of cross-promotion, which will be regulated by Ofcom and the OFT. For example, the cross-promotion of other television channels and programmes is not allowed to cause annoyance to viewers, and licensees for Channels 3, 4 and 5 are not permitted to promote multi-channel platform service operators such as the Sky platform.
If, at some point in the future, the regulator believed that the cross-promotion rules in place were no longer relevant, Ofcom would be able, with consultation, to change the rules on cross-promotion. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, implied that the big beasts would work their way around content regulations with armies of lawyers. Big companies always look for the greatest commercial advantage in any rules-based system, but there is also the possibility, which the noble Lord apparently rules out, that a large company, having been examined by the Competition Commission, might be suitable. It might be a good thing. As I said, the Joint Scrutiny Committee did not rule that out. It suggested that it should and could be properly decided through competition law, strengthened by the plurality test.
The noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, in particular, addressed the issue of the role of Ministers. The test involves three independent regulators: Ofcom, the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission. They are not, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, alleges, untested regulators. The OFT has been running for more than 30 years, and the Competition Commission has run for about 30 years too. They are all independent bodies commanding respect, and I do not care to hear them called "untested".
The whole point about the public interest merger test is that it is for those independent regulators to make recommendations. It is for Ministers to make decisions. Does anybody seriously think that, if the independent regulators said, having regard to the provisions of the plurality test contained in Amendment No. 85, which we have yet to debate, that a Minister had flouted their advice and had done so for the base reasons suggested by several noble Lordsit is legitimate to criticise Ministers and ascribe base reasons to themthat Minister would get away with it? Of course not.
I propose to the House that we should address the issue of cross-media ownership and plurality on the basis of principle, not of levity and ad hominem arguments about Australian-American moguls. We would do ourselves credit if we gave proper prominence to the rule of law in this country and avoided the kind of temporary political advantage proposed in the amendment.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I suppose that we all respond to difficult situations in different ways. I often say that, perhaps, I do so with a little too much levity. Others respond by speaking louder and using a little bombast. It is a matter of choice. The more I listened to the Minister, the more I thought of the phrase:
I spent a long time on the Bill, and I was proud to have the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell, Lord Sheldon, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, Lord Peyton of Yeovil and Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen of Pimlico, and my noble friends Lord Maclennan of Rogart and Lord Phillips of Sudbury with me today. I may be frivolous, but they are not. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that it is not some wonderful thing that, at Third Reading, a Labour government should propose concessions on plurality. I would have expected a Labour government to have had such a test as the flagship of the Bill.
As for my attack on Mr Murdoch, the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, put his finger on it. He mentioned the matter a week or so ago at a seminar. The Rubicon was crossed when Tony Blair travelled halfway round the world to address a News International conference. There are concerns about the close links between the media and politics not only in Britain or Europe, but around the world. In the 1930s, we were afraid that the fascists would take over the government and then control the press: in the 21st century, there may be a
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that, at some time, Channel 5 might be in such dire straits that we might have to bend the rules a little to save it. That is how Mr Murdoch got The Times; that is how he got his satellite television monopoly. We must not consider the amendment as an alternative to the plurality test. I am delighted at the plurality test. I welcome not only the plurality test but the many other amendments that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, with principle and great skill, has managed to insert. However, that better Bill needs the amendment. For all the talk from the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, about future proofing, the 20:20 arrangements are in for Channel 3 and ITN. They must be in for Channel 5 because there is a clear and present danger that there will be a call to bring Channel 5 into cross-media ownership. That would be dangerous for our democracy and damaging to other parts of our media.
I shall say one more thing. My noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart mentioned another place. Some 126 Members of another place signed an Early Day Motion in support of the amendment at an earlier stage of the Bill's passage. The proposer of that Early Day Motion, Mr John Grogan MP, who was himself a member of our committee, was quoted in the Independent as follows: