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I would, however, make a general proposition about the media. As I said at the start, the media generally and newspapers in particular are there to expose. That is also their claim, and it is an important claim in a democracy. Doubtless at times they expose private lives; doubtless at times they overstep the mark. But also at times they serve the public interest, as when the Sunday Times exposed the thalidomide case. The Philby case was also exposed by newspapers. Their position is that they have a right to ask questions and to expose the truth, and it is a right that I strongly support. That is the essential claim of a free press in a democracy. But people who live by that claim cannot then turn round and say, “But you cannot ask questions of me”. It is a defence which is simply not open to those who own or work for the media.

As well as a politician, I was once a journalist. I need only to become an estate agent to have done the three most unpopular jobs in this country. I notice how many people say today that the media do not meet the same standards as they once did. I do not agree with that. If you look at my old paper, the Times, it is more interesting, better written and better laid out than it was in my day, and I say the same about much of the British press. If you look at television news or listen to radio news, again, it is better. It is certainly nothing like as deferential as it once was, and that is a good thing too, while the internet provides a whole new range of opportunities in bringing news to the public.

Rupert Murdoch told us in New York that the media are in a state of flux, and he is right. They face severe financial pressures, and like any other industry they must be allowed to compete. However, we should not be stampeded into making changes that would for ever restrict the ownership of the news in this country. That also is important. The worst thing would be if the media became dominated by even fewer players than they are today. That would not be in the public interest. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Communications Committee on the ownership of the news (First Report, HL Paper 122).—(Lord Fowler.)

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6.51 pm

Lord Maxton: My Lords, I welcome this debate on an important report on an important issue. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, both for his chairmanship of the committee that produced it and for his introduction to this debate. In fact, he has covered the issue so well that I am not sure what he has left for the rest of us to do.

I welcome my noble friend the Minister to his first debate in this House. He brings an expertise to the job that I think most of us welcome, because he has been involved in the area of communications for a long time. If I resent him for anything, it is for the fact that he makes me feel very old and is lowering the average age of the House.

I am in some difficulty on this. There are some aspects of what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said and what is in the report that I agree with, but I make it clear that there are aspects that I do not think go far enough. The first thing that I disagree with the noble Lord on is the coverage of the Ross-Brand affair. We heard much during our inquiry of the need to maintain the highly skilled and balanced investigative journalism that we have in this country. As someone on the committee who has no employment past either as a journalist or within the communications industry, I always had doubts about whether such an animal had ever existed.

My suspicions were fully confirmed last week when the media went collectively mad over the Ross-Brand affair. What that pair of so-called comedians did was wrong and unpleasant, but the totally over-the-top reaction by most of the British media, including the BBC itself, was close to absurdity. So-called serious newspapers, such as the Times and the Guardian, used most of their front pages to tell this non-story, while the BBC headed its main news bulletins with lengthy coverage of it, as long as six or seven minutes. This was when the US elections were reaching their climax—and I take the opportunity to congratulate President Obama on his overwhelming election—the credit crunch was still going on, anarchy in the Congo was just beginning and there was an earthquake in Pakistan that passed almost totally unnoticed. It was not the best example of the British media.

The report deals, in depth and with insight, with the present ownership of British national, regional and local newspapers. It also deals well with the news provided by the main five public service broadcasters, both their national news bulletins and their regional output. Of course that is right; as the noble Lord has said, many people still buy and read newspapers and therefore who owns them is of importance in a democracy. It is, however, perhaps of particular importance to the generation represented in this House. Equally, many of our generation still wait until 6 pm or 10 pm to get the BBC or ITV news. Therefore, how those organisations maintain impartiality and how their public service commitment is carried out also remain important.

In a democracy, where the media are an important part of the democratic process, who owns or controls the news is still very relevant, so much so that there are those who, like me, would argue—following on to some extent from what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler,

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said—that those parts of the media that are publicly funded in any way should be subject to the same freedom of information legislation as other publicly funded people are. I know that most of the committee do not agree with me on that, but it seems to me that if John Humphrys is allowed to know the expenses and everything else of people in Parliament, civil servants or whoever, then so should the public know what he earns. He is an important part of the democratic process and should be involved.

Having said that about the media, I wonder how many of us now really wait on a Saturday afternoon—I shall use football terms—to find out how our team has got on. We certainly do not wait to find out the result in the paper on Sunday morning, as we used to have to do. We probably do not even wait until we listen to a news bulletin, which will likely not give the score anyway. If a major story is breaking, do we wait until we read the newspapers to find out the latest news? Of course there are those who do and many of my colleagues tell me that the traditional news sources therefore remain of paramount importance. Yes, newspapers are still read, but they are now more likely to be read for comment and views rather than for news. As Tony Blair, our previous Prime Minister, said, they are becoming “viewspapers”, not newspapers. That may be worth while, but it is not about news itself. To cite a small example, yesterday in the Library I looked at the front page of the Herald, the Glasgow-based Scottish paper. There simply was no story on that front page that I had not already heard or read elsewhere. So while the report is good, it deals with the past and present. It does not say enough about the future.

Younger people—that is, almost anyone younger than most of us here—have access to an enormous range of information, including news. We live in an information-rich society. The public have access to sources of information that were undreamt of when I was a young man or even when I first entered politics. In the past 100 years, we have gone from being entirely reliant for our news on a few newspapers—remember, even they are mainly less than 150 years old—to a world that has radio, television and, perhaps above all, the internet. I know that my colleagues will say, “He will talk about the internet; he is always talking about it”. You can read almost any newspaper in the world online, find out any piece of information and, yes, keep up with the very latest sports results.

I accept that, in a rapidly changing technological world, those who try to predict the next breakthrough are likely to get egg on their face. However, some things that are going to happen in the future we already know about. Within four years the switch from analogue to digital television will be complete. Then, every household that has a television, which is nearly all of them, will have access to at least two 24-hour news channels—the BBC, probably Sky and possibly one more—as well as the continuing news services on the main channels. They will also have access to many more radio stations than they do at present. Already more than 70 per cent of households, before the switchover becomes mandatory, have digital television.

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Many of those people—the figure is close to 70 per cent—also have access to the internet through broadband connections. Companies such as Virgin, Sky and BT increasingly offer bundles that include television, broadband internet access and telephony. As a result, users can obtain news from an enormous number of local, national and international websites. Last night, I was able to watch on my laptop computer at home coverage of the US elections from US websites rather than being dependent on British newspapers, radio or even the BBC. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, wants to see the BBC employing people abroad. I may differ with him on that, as it seemed that every bar and party in the United States last night was manned by some BBC reporter—I gather that almost 100 of them were over there covering the election. I did not need to watch that; I could watch and read about it in other ways from a variety of sources.

The major issue must be to ensure that everyone has the same access. I again disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in hoping that, if the Government decide to top-slice the BBC licence fee after 2012, that money will go towards ensuring that all households have broadband access rather than subsidising other television channels. That would be a much more useful way of ensuring that people have access to the news.

I shall suggest one or two ways in which access to news will be increased enormously during the next few years; although this debate is not time-limited, I do not want to spend a lot of time on this. People will say that the internet is limited and that you have to go to and turn on a computer to watch it. The next step—it is in a comparatively early stage of development, but the technology exists—is for the user wirelessly to access the internet through their television set. You will be able to watch almost any television programme or news bulletin from around the world, as well as look at specific news websites. You will be able to read newspapers, not just from this country but from elsewhere, from the comfort of your lounge and not from a seat in front of a computer screen in some less comfortable part of the house.

We are beginning to see also the development of electronic books, which look like books, are the same weight as books and whose pages do not glare at you as does a computer screen. With these devices, you will be able to download newspapers from the internet as you sit on your train or bus, or where you would normally read a newspaper or book. I know that some people shake their head and say I am way out on this, but I believe that it is going to happen.

More people are using mobile phones to get their news. When I am abroad, I do not have to find an internet café or watch Sky News on a television; I can simply go to the BBC website on my mobile phone and see exactly what is happening in the UK. I certainly do not wait until the following morning to buy yesterday’s newspaper to get the news.

Thus we already live in a world where most people have access to news from almost anywhere in the world. They will also have access at a very local level, whether it is to their local council, their local sports club or their children’s schools’ websites. News will be very local or national, but it will not be dependent on the traditional news sources.

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Of course, some important questions are raised. First, while we have this enormous wealth of information and news, is there any evidence that people are better informed or read more news? Secondly, even if the evidence suggests that they are not and do not, should it be our concern? It is the responsibility of government and Parliament to ensure that everyone has access to as much information as possible, but it is not our responsibility to try to make them use it. When people need news that either they consider important or affects them personally, they will seek it out.

In a democracy, we would like all our electors to be well informed by balanced media. I do not believe that that has ever been the case. As a politician, I have never noticed that the media are particularly balanced; they are more likely to give one side of the argument. Indeed, most people in a democracy are more informed than in the past. Their number will continue to grow. The ownership of existing sources of news is still important, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, but control of the new platforms that are developing, will spread and will become increasingly important to younger people in particular, is largely outside the control of this country—it will be in the USA. The platform, rather than news source, will be important. I do not know whether we will ever be able to come to international agreements to control it or, indeed, whether we should.

7.06 pm

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Communications Committee report. I add my thanks to those offered to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for the expert way in which he guided the committee through its various stages. Possibly his most difficult task arose on our trip to America when, on a visit to the Washington Post, we were being led to a committee room to do some serious discussing about the future of the news and we learnt that Brad Pitt was being given a tour of the newsroom only a few feet away. There was mutiny in the air but the noble Lord managed to get us all into the committee room, and none of us caught a glimpse of Brad Pitt.

I also welcome the Minister—the more Carters in this House, the merrier. The inquiry was held against a backdrop of multiplying numbers of news platforms, the ever-increasing ways of accessing news and declining advertising revenue. Alongside that is a perception that the provision of news on television and in newspapers is in decline. Within this decline, foreign news reporting and investigative journalism are particularly hard hit. As we state in the report,

“The proliferation of news sources”—

which the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, so eloquently discussed—

In the area of television, public sector broadcasting is under threat. I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company, but also as someone with insider knowledge, having worked for many years making PSB television for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. We on these Benches believe that it is essential

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that public service sector broadcasting is preserved, that it is free at the point of use and that there is choice for the consumer.

During the past week, as both the previous speakers have mentioned, we have seen the BBC come under sustained attack because of the unacceptable behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The fact that the BBC is funded by the licence fee, a levy on the public, means that it must respond immediately when that public are upset about what is being broadcast. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that politicians and the rest of the press went over the top. It is important to work out what went wrong and ensure that it does not happen again. That means that we understand, as the Guardian pointed out last week in a leader, that,

“The BBC is a universal broadcaster but does not serve a nation with universal tastes”.

We should all think long and hard about what will happen to many of the wonderfully innovative BBC programmes if producers are no longer prepared or allowed to take risks.

We were told on our trip to America by many in broadcasting, newsprint and politics how lucky we were to have the BBC as a cornerstone of public service commitment. What is happening in the US is a cautionary tale. We held meetings with senior vice-presidents of the three network channels; they are all facing serious problems with declining audiences for their evening news programmes. There is a practical reason for this downturn, alongside the competition posed by cable channels and the internet, which is the time at which the news is broadcast. The people it is aimed at are working longer hours, with longer commutes, and they do not get home in time to tune in to the evening news. But in America there is no possibility of rescheduling because advertising slots in peak time are too precious. The market rules, despite the fact that Mr Slavin from ABC told us that if this group continues to turn away from the evening news, it is not inconceivable that it will disappear altogether. Here, we have the admirable Channel 4 News at seven o’clock and news on BBC, and now again on ITV, at 10. This accessibility and plurality must be maintained.

Mr Murdoch, whom we also met, does not think that we are lucky to have the BBC but, then, his favourite broadcaster is Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News. Mr Ailes told us that his definition of news was that it should be new. So, for instance, Fox News did not cover the events at Abu Ghraib prison unless something previously unknown emerged. It was showing liberal bias to do otherwise. Mr Murdoch told us that he wished Sky News here would follow the Fox philosophy. He also said that nobody at Sky listens to him. That demonstrates exactly how lucky we are to have the BBC and how crucial it is, at a time when PSB is under threat, that we respect its independence and guard the licence fee.

Ofcom has suggested that research it recently conducted demonstrates that we overemphasise the connection in the public’s mind between the licence fee and the BBC. But when people were presented with a list of all TV services and asked what the licence fee paid for, 87 per

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cent said the BBC. To me, that suggests a pretty strong connection. It might, of course, help the 13 per cent who did not make the connection if the BBC put its name on the licence we receive.

We on these Benches believe, as does the report, that topslicing the licence fee would undermine the ability of the corporation to do what it does best. We are also concerned that if Channel 4 were to take public money, its unique independence would be compromised. However, the BBC must fulfil its obligations. Last October, the Director-General announced a series of cuts to news. He told us that the BBC can deliver the same or higher quality of journalism with somewhat fewer people. This may be so in some areas but not all of them.

I used to be a producer on “Newsnight”. At the 2007 MacTaggart lecture, Jeremy Paxman said:

“On Newsnight ... over the last three years we’ve been required to make budget cuts of fifteen percent. We have lost producers, researchers and reporters. Nor can we make the films we once made ... and I cannot see how the programme can survive in anything like its current form if the cuts are implemented”.

That rings true to me, and I think it shows on the screen. High-quality news programmes are central to the BBC’s PSB remit. It makes cuts to its news operation at its peril.

The multi-channel landscape of the digital future poses particular problems and challenges to the commercial public service broadcasters. The BBC should not become a monopoly supplier of PSB and, according to Ofcom, that view is held by 86 per cent of the public. Plurality of public service broadcasting must be an aim of public policy. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that if money is left over from the digital switchover targeted assistance programme, it should go to help the commercial PSBs.

The other suggestion is that the BBC offers practical partnerships to the commercial public service broadcasters. It seems to have responded very positively to this, offering to share facilities and expertise. That must be properly acted upon rather than being just words.

It is not just broadcast journalism that is facing problems. The newspaper industry has seen readership numbers fall and the loss of advertising revenue to the web. As with television news, cuts are being made across the industry, particularly in investigative and foreign journalism. We agree with the report that the public interest consideration for newspaper mergers and broadcasting across media mergers should be amended to refer specifically to a need to establish whether a merger will impact adversely on news gathering.

However, we should not be dismissive of the journalism of the internet. It has been hailed as vital to the process of democracy in America in the historic election we have just witnessed. It enfranchised swathes of people by enabling those who had laptops to access speeches, campaign ads and news broadcasts in their own time and repeatedly. While on our trip to the United States a year ago, only one story dominated the conventional media—the arrest of OJ Simpson for armed robbery. Suddenly a new story emerged. In Jena, Louisiana, people were marching against a perceived injustice. Six black students had been charged with assaulting a white classmate and were facing prosecution

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and jail. A fight occurred following an incident in which three nooses were hung from a tree in the high school grounds by white students the day after black students had sat under the tree. The story emerged not in the newspaper or on TV but through the internet. As the bloggers and citizen journalists spread the word, so did the protests. The story grew out of Jena and out of Louisiana, and thousands from across America converged on the town. That is a whole new way for news to travel.

There is a lot that is good about this world but it is not regulated, and people know this. They do not trust the news they get from it, as they do the news they get from newspapers, radio and television and, in particular in this country, the BBC. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said earlier, 65 per cent of the population identify television as their main source of news, with only 6 per cent citing the internet. In what Will Lewis, editor of the Telegraph, calls the world of multiple confusion, people need and want to access news from the traditional sources they know and trust. We do not agree with those who argue that the media ownership rules in this country are out of date now that there are so many news outlets from which to choose.

We believe it is still the case that consolidation of ownership in the media risks giving disproportionate influence to a small number of companies and owners, and that media ownership regulation must be maintained.

7.18 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to welcome the Minister to your Lordships' House, to congratulate him on his appointment and to be present for the occasion of his maiden speech as a Minister. Many of your Lordships will, like me, have valued their exchanges with the noble Lord during his important reign as the first chief executive officer of Ofcom and will be looking forward to further exchanges with him in your Lordships' House.

Turning to our report, and in common with other members of the Select Committee who have spoken, I commend our very expert media chairman, together with his staff and advisers, for enabling us to open up a view of our field which is as penetrating as it is comprehensive. I have the impression that the Government’s response is rather narrower than that, focusing too exclusively on basic commercial considerations and taking insufficient account of the title of our report, Ownership of the News, and the need for diversity in that respect. I have a sneaking feeling that the Government’s response might have read rather differently had the Minister been in post at the time it was written.

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