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It is certainly not in the public interest for diversity in the ownership of the news to be diminished, and still less desirable for it to be homogenised or, worse still, monopolised. We do not need to be reminded of the pressures that have been, and certainly still will be, working in that direction. The newspaper industry and the media generally are facing serious problems. Readership is falling, young people are turning to other sources of news, and advertising is moving to the internet. Newspapers and broadcasters have less
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I am only too aware of that as a result of the changes that have taken place since the days when I used to travel the world with my noble kinsman, when he was Foreign Secretary, with up to a dozen or so specialist journalists in the same RAF plane, including diplomatic correspondents, not just from the Times, the Guardian and the BBC, but from the Glasgow Herald, the Mail, the Mirror and the Sun. Today, all that seems to happen for most of the time is a chorus of press criticism of Foreign Secretaries for flying abroad at all. It is against that background that our committee drew attention to the fact that the proliferation of ways to access the news, alongside consolidation of ownership, had certainly not been matched by any improvement in journalistic results. On the contrary, all too much of the news has simply been repackaged from elsewhere.
In the USAand we have heard a great deal about this alreadywe noted that the quality and range of television news had steadily diminished. This is, thankfully, still in contrast with the position in this country, where public service broadcasters continue to provide an invaluable wide and diverse range of home and overseas news. Ed Richards told us that for him the most significant, indeed crucial, statistic in New News, Future News, was that television news remains the primary source of news for two-thirds of the UK population. In that setting, the BBC plays a pivotal role and, as we point out,
Recent events which have already been touched onI have in mind, of course, the disgraceful behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brandmust underline, for the BBC, the folly of shooting itself in the foot. Moreover, if UK news standards are to be maintained, public service broadcasting competition in this area is also vital. As ITV/Channel 4 and Channel 5 and others find it increasingly hard to compete for internet-bound advertising, without the spectrum advantages of the past, our report makes it clear that other forms of funding will be needed to stimulate competition with the BBCs news service, as in other public service broadcasting areas. However, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, I hope that the BBC can reassure us that it has no plans to topslice the licence fee for such funds. As our report says,
Here I entirely endorse every word said by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, on the value of the BBC to this country, which goes well beyond our national boundaries.
A further issue that I should like to underline is the consolidation of media ownership, with its risk of disproportionate influence. Eight owners now dominate the national press, with that power increased by cross-media ownership, as most have holdings in other media enterprises, including regional and local news as well as TV and radio. Hence, Simon Jenkins view that the industrys self-regulation remains inadequate
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Even so, with a spread of eight powerful press barons competing with each other, there remains at least some hope that, if some dubious activity is taking place in one group, another newspaper will air the issue. Dog sometimes does eat dog.
However, a very large question mark remains firmly on the agenda. Every current editor assured our committee of their freedom to investigate and write on any issue, But that was certainly not supported by the example of what actually happened when Andrew Neil, then editor of Rupert Murdochs Sunday Times, published articles alleging corruption in the Malaysian Government, just at the moment when Murdoch was hoping to persuade their Prime Minister to allow Star TV into their country. Andrew Neil soon became an ex-editorand I think that that speaks for itself.
I come to the last issue I want to emphasise and, in particular, to ask the Minister and the rest of the Government to think again. The Communications Act 2003, as we all know, gave a far greater emphasis to consumerthat is, to technical and economicissues than to those of the citizen, which, as chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission in the past, was an area I was particularly concerned with. I do not for a moment question the importance of those consumer interests that Ofcom has championed; indeed, I am rather more convinced of the value of what it has done than I was at the outset. In the rapidly changing IT world we have lived in since the Act was passed, it has become clear that it has needed to act fast and keep as much up to date as it can, with the fairly limited remit it was given by the 2003 Act in some respects. But undoubtedly that commercial emphasis has meant that content, very often and very much a citizens concern, has taken a back seat.
The decisions of the Content Board remain very much in-house. It was interesting that when the consumer council was first in existence, it seemed to have rather more publicity and gave us more information about what it was recommending to Ofcom than did the Content Board. As a result, the Content Board still has much less impact than it ought to have. Quite simply, it should be much more powerfully publicised. That is why it is so important, when a merger is being considered, that Ofcom should be given the power, as we recommend, alongside that of the Secretary of State, to initiate the public interest test. As we say, that sits more comfortably with its clear statutory duty to promote the interests of the citizen. I shall not go into the long battle that we have had on the blurring of the word consumer and citizen, because there has been repentance all round on that one.
To concede such responsibility would in no way remove the Secretary of States power to decide against any recommendation that Ofcom chose to make, but it would mean that any citizens issue that Ofcom considered important would quite definitely be aired publicly.
Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baronesss most interesting observations on an area in which she took acute interest well before she came on to the committee, although she worried me and the learned clerk when she referred to her husband as her kinsman. There was some discussion as to whether that was actually the correct description. However, we all know who he isa distinguished Foreign Secretary, as he was.
I join others in welcoming the Minister to his new position. If I may say so without embarrassing any of his predecessors, he is much more qualified to reply to this debate than one or two other Ministers whom we have had. He is also, I hope, much more qualified to contribute to policy because of his previous experiences. I hope that in a quiet moment, if he gets one, he will have the opportunityI appreciate that he took over his responsibilities only very recentlyto read our earlier reports, because there are items of merit in them.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler, who is an outstanding Select Committee chairman. I do not wish to embarrass him, but he is his own creature. Those who serve on the committee are pleased to serve on it and are doing a valuable job. I think the House will have heard in the power of his speech and in the range of his contributions not only his great personal experience in journalism but his wider interest in the subject and in the responsibility inherent in the ownership of the media. He has covered the water-front in his wise and powerful speech.
I have regarded membership of the committee as a learning process. I notethe noble Lord, Lord Maxton, would remind me pretty quickly if I did notthat we started this process 15 months ago, and some of the evidence that we took is pretty out of date now. Some of the things that happened at the time were technical, and some were financial, but they have advanced things in significant ways. I say unashamedly that when I first joined the committee I never used to get my news from BBC News online, but now I turn to it regularly as a much more immediate way of hearing the news. I can also choose what I want to hear and do not have to wait for the order of march that has been detected by some editor or producer, or perhaps wait for longer than I wish to, to hear the items in which I am particularly interested.
The quality and range of provision and the technical capabilities are growing enormously, and with them the challenges. There is the challenge of ownership, as my noble friend Lord Fowler has said, as well as the challenge of determining where the news is coming from and under whose oversight or influence it may be perpetrated, no matter on what channel or by what outlet, whether it is a news aggregator or one of the internet offerings of one sort or another. From where does the news actually originate?
It is very common for noble Lordswe all do itto stand up and say how wonderful this House is. However, speaking as someone with some modest experience in government and some experience in the House of Commons, I think that this House is rather better placed at forming a committee of people of experience with a background or other involvement in the industry to address some of these issues.
The honest truth is that Members of Parliament, particularly Prime Ministers and members of Governments, have great difficulty taking a totally objective view of some of the issues of ownership when they are trying to persuade particular owners to continue their loyal support in coming elections. It is no secretI have seen this myself, more as an observer than a practitionerhow successive Governments of different parties have been faced with these issues of ownership and have found it impossible to dismiss concerns about whether their decisions might impinge too seriously on the attitude of Mr Rupert Murdoch, who is the classic illustration of this, and on his publication.
As my noble friend said, we took fascinating evidence. I congratulated Mr Murdoch on the candour of his evidence to the representatives of the committee. However, he stated that he did not really interfere with the Sunday Times or the Times, although I think it is true to say that Andrew Neil, in his evidence, had a slightly alternative view and presented a slightly different version. He was also contradicted by a current editor. He also said that in the case of the Sun and the News of the World he was a more traditional proprietor. We then had the extremely engaging and sparky evidence of Rebekah Wade, who implied that the only thing that exercised him was the concentration on celebrities and that he was critical of the fact that the Sun spent too much time on them.
It should be recognised that the committee, which had difficult birth pangs in getting the House to agree to it, has a real role to play, and in the very important respects that I have outlined is significantly better placed to play it than the Commons is. There is a sense that the committee has a more independent view.
I entirely echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, has said about corporate governance at the BBC. My approach to this is entirely as a committed supporter of the BBC, which is one of the few real jewels in our national crown. It is important not only domestically but around the world, and is respected and admired. The most remarkable convert of all time was probably Mr Gorbachev, who at the time of the coup against him was President of the Soviet Union. He had been committed to trying to jam the BBC World Service, but in his moment of crisis at his holiday home in the Crimea, when he tried to find out what on earth was going on in the coup he turned to the BBC World Service as the one service that he trusted to produce an accurate account of the events. I make my comments against that background.
We set out very clearly in our earlier report our concern about the bizarre, compromised structure that had been established of the trust and the executive board of the BBC. As my noble friend Lord Fowler has instanced, Sir Michael Lyons, who is an excellent person in so many ways, is allowed only the honorary
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Ironically, I cannot fail to remember that the strongest defender of the BBC, Michael Grade, said in his evidence that the new system certainly would work. Within about four or six months of giving us that evidence, he had departed to ITV.
That leads on to the next point in our report. If the Government get another problem like thisif there is another crisis and the same sort of problems emerge about how it is being handled, who is responsible and how quick the reaction will bethe pressure to go back to a sensible, strong, unitary structure will be great. Of course, we cannot really do that because our other recommendation is that the BBC should be governed not under its charter but by an Act of Parliament. It might be slightly easier to move an amendment to an Act of Parliament or produce a new Bill, but with the charters fixed timeframe nobody can do much about it. We raised the issue of the Act of Parliament and the Government talk about it in their response, particularly in terms of parliamentary approval of the licence fee and the difficulties that they see arising. If, as now, you have a structure that does not work and is under such strain, there are wider considerations in this rapidly changing world for more opportunities to change it.
I also strongly agree with my noble friend Lord Fowler about the news media. He quoted Mr Rupert Murdoch talking about its chaotic state. Of course, Mr Murdoch had said that before we hit the credit crunch and the financial challenges that we currently face. There will clearly be even greater economies throughout the mediaeven more cuts of one sort or another. The news agency feed, the PR press release and the alternative sources of news that emerge will become increasingly prevalent.
Against this rapidly changing background, one of the real challenges now is the condition of the regional and local press, which is under enormous pressure. I have been watching the four major groups involved with interest. For one of them, the share price is now down to 5 per cent of what it was about three years ago. Our report said that, despite the pressure that they might face, the competition rules should still apply. I have seen reports in the past day that certain
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However, there may be an argument for waiving the competition rules. Look at Lloyds TSB and HBOS, where the national interest, the challenges they face and the interest in maintaining those activities because of the importance of banks and building societies meant that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State announced that they would suspend the competition rules. I understand that a former chairman of the Competition Commission came to a recent all-party group in this House to say that that is all very well, but it does not rule out reassessing at a later stage, in happier times, whether Lloyds TSB and HBOS could then be referred back to the Competition Commission, even though they had been allowed to merge. You could reassess whether that merger had subsequently proven to be in the national interest in terms of effective competition in calmer times. If there was an argument for saying that some mergers might help to ensure the survival of the regional and local press, the Government might need to bear that in mind against the real challenges that they currently face.
I was unimpressed by the Governments answer to our proposal that Ofcom should have the power to initiate the public interest test. We were not suggesting that that should replace the power of the Secretary of State to do so, but that Ofcom should have it as well. Of course, the Secretary of State will have to take the final decision. However, coming back to the difficulty of separating politics from executive decisions by the Government, it seemed that it would actually strengthen the Governments position. If they were not referring something, and Ofcom did not think that it was necessary to refer it either but had the power to do so, it would underpin the Governments position. The Secretary of State would still take the final decision, but on a much more transparent basis.
The Minister may not have been involved in the preparation of the Governments reply. I hope that, if he is involved in future government responses, he brings some of his skills to bear and makes a rather better written reply than many government responses to Select Committees. They seem as dismissive as possible and pretty unsatisfactory. I hope that the Minister will look at that.
Reciprocal rightsfor UK companies to have the same rights as we give to foreign companies operating in this countrycame up in 2003. The Government said that they were taking steps to ensure that reciprocal rights were achieved. When we suggested that very little had been done and that an annual report on progress might be one way to keep up the pressure on the Government to work on this, what did we get? We do not think that an annual report would be particularly helpful. For the Ministers maiden initiative of real decisiveness, taking a grip on his departmentwhich we all encourage him to doI say that that is not good enough as a response. If you are not going to make an annual report, at least set up some arrangement whereby a report is made to Parliament on an issue on which Parliament and Government are united, on which there should be reciprocal rights, and on which pressure
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Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I have an unpleasant feeling that everything that needs to be said has been said. I am rather tempted to say that I agree with everything and sit down. That would probably be a great relief to Members of your Lordships House who are thinking about dinner, which is probably most of us. However, I fear that it would also be a discourtesy. First, it would be a discourtesy to my noble friend the Minister, who is here to give his maiden speech, to which we are all greatly looking forward. I join everybody else in welcoming him to his place. Secondly, it would be a discourtesy to our much esteemed chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. He is esteemed not only for his excellent chairmanship, but for the excellent way in which he set out the committees stall earlier in the debate. I have no wish to offend the noble Lord, so I am afraid that I am going to plough on. In doing so, I add my thanks to our committee Clerk, Chloe Mawson, and her team, who managed a particularly lively, perhaps even volatile, evidence-gathering process with great discretion and determination. We were also fortunate in having two excellent special advisers in Professors Steve Barnett and Mike Feintuck.
For me, coming to this inquiry with no background in news gathering or dissemination, the experience was salutary. Like the noble Lord, Lord King, I learnt a great deal more from it than I contributed to it. I learnt in the main about the pressures under which the purveyors of news, print and broadcast, have to work and about their changing priorities in a fast-moving environment. This is a matter of great concern to everybody, as was much mentioned by those who have already spoken. I said that I could have sat down having said that I agreed with everything that had been said, but that would not have been true, as I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Maxton. He will not be surprised by that because he thinks that I am a dinosaur and I think that he is an anorak, albeit a very high-class one.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Indeed, my Lords, as my noble friend rightly says from a sedentary position, we are probably both right. However, his view of this world of multiplicity within which information is available to anybody who wants to access it in many forms, including on mobile telephones, through a television, via the internet and so forth, is one that, although I understand the seductive nature of his description, none the less seems to me neither particularly desirable nor the one in which most people live.
As someone who is easily confused by the explosion of news sources, mainly driven by the internet, I found some aspects of what emerged from the evidence that we took a pleasant surprise. For examplethis has been mentioned by other speakersit is clear that there is still a relatively small number of trusted sources of news, among which the BBC and the broadsheet newspapers, whether they appear in print or online, still rank highly. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, mentioned this, as, indeed, did our esteemed chairman. Ofcom stated in written evidence to the committee:
Televisionparticularly PSB evidenceis by some margin the main source of news for the majority of UK consumers ... Among the TV providers, the BBC takes more than 50% of the television news audience ... and ITV1 more than half the remaining audience.
Evidence also shows that although the readership of paid-for newspapers both national and regionalfreesheets are another matter, as the committee discoveredis much smaller than the audience for television news, those newspapers are still significant sources in terms of the trust that is placed in them.
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