Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

This leads me to my main point. Despite all that we have been told, mainly by my noble friend Lord Maxton, but by others as well, about the growing influence of the internet, with its huge diversity of views, who owns or controls the conventional—my noble friend might say old-fashioned—sources of news remains a matter of undiminished significance in which, for the sake of democracy, we must continue to take an active interest because those people still wield enormous influence over the views of a majority of the population. Here I take issue with something that my noble friend Lord Maxton said as regards what people read newspapers for. He implied that newspapers are frequently out of date and that people read them for views and comment. It strikes me that views and comment are precisely what influence people to make the choices that they do, in particular the choices that they make that influence how they behave as citizens and how they exercise their democratic rights. Therefore, the news is surely more than just what happened.

Looking at the evidence—this was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—I was struck again by how anxious serving editors and current owners of newspapers were to reassure the committee that owners are not in any way involved in editorial decision-making. We even heard the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, volunteer that he and his board would be unconcerned if their editor decided to promote the legalisation of cannabis or entry into the euro, or even to back the Labour Party. There was a resounding noise of jaws hitting the floor at that moment.

Evidence was given by Ms Rebekah Wade, as has been mentioned by other members of the committee. She certainly won some hearts. I have to say that she did not entirely win mine, but there we are. Ms Wade attempted to persuade the committee that the interest of her proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in the content of her newspaper was limited to being,

It is unfortunate for Ms Wade, as was mentioned by several other speakers, that the minute of the committee’s

5 Nov 2008 : Column 294

meeting with Mr Murdoch in New York—I am sorry to say that I was not present at the meeting, but I did read the minute—reveals a slightly different story. As we have been told, he makes it quite clear that he treats his most successful newspapers, the Sun and the News of the World, very differently from the way in which he treats the Times and the Sunday Times. His influence on them is constrained. None the less, he clearly said that he acts as a “traditional proprietor” in respect of the Sun and the News of the World. The minute continues:

“He exercises editorial control on major issues—like which party to back in a general election or policy on Europe”.

That is a direct quotation from the minute that the committee submitted of the meeting with him.

Mr Murdoch’s straightforward acknowledgement of his direct involvement in the editorial stance of those newspapers is rather refreshing in the context of so much convoluted denial from other people. Ex-editors who gave evidence, including Andrew Neil, who has already been mentioned, Andrew Marr and Dominic Lawson, presented the issue of ownership differently from their serving colleagues. Mr Neil was particularly forthcoming about the nature of the UK newspaper industry when he said:

“Our newspapers are dominated. Even when they are PLCs, even when they are quoted companies, they are essentially dominated by one individual ... in effect they are run like private companies. The Rothermere family controls The Mail and the Murdoch family controls the News International papers”.

He went on to say that the UK situation was significantly different from what prevails in Europe or North America, maintaining that,

Andrew Marr made some trenchant remarks about the kind of interference from proprietors that, while not directly political, none the less influences the integrity of the output. This relates to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. Andrew Marr said that,

That is the kind of influence that was brought before the committee over and over again both in respect of newspapers and television. It is a serious matter.

This brings me back to the question of trusted sources of news, which are still very few in number, as I have said, even though they may manifest themselves in a variety of forms. The fact that they are so few makes the question of who owns and controls them even more important. The degree of access that those owners have to policy-makers is a matter of legitimate public concern, as the committee makes clear in its recommendations. The evidence received from Mr Alastair Campbell was illuminating on this matter. His description of the courting of Mr Murdoch and others by the Labour Party in opposition and subsequently in government—as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord King—was careful and measured but gave a clear insight into the importance attached by policy-makers to having the ear of newspaper proprietors. In this environment, the greatest possible diversity of ownership is one way of ensuring that what my noble friend Lord Puttnam—whom I am very glad to see in his place—in

5 Nov 2008 : Column 295

his evidence described as “cartel behaviour” does not get a hold. He rightly pointed out that the interests of the citizen, as opposed to the consumer—a distinction mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—are best served by what he called “plurality of input”, engendering,

in other words, engaging with your duties and responsibilities as a citizen. I hope that the Government will recognise that fierce protection of this plurality of input will always be necessary and that they will maintain a regulatory regime strong enough to withstand pressure to downgrade the importance of diversity of ownership.

I cannot conclude without mentioning public service broadcasting, much mentioned in the debate so far and thrown into very unfortunate sharp relief last week by the BBC’s difficulties with Messrs Ross and Brand. Ofcom has not yet completed its review of public service broadcasting, but it is already clear that the commercial television companies are seeking to reduce their obligation to produce public service programming, including, crucially, news provision, local, regional and national. Some of that provision has already been cut back. The levers available to keep those commercial companies in the game are limited, as Ofcom’s interim report on the results of its consultation shows. For example, it states that,

This is a serious matter. The BBC, for all its present difficulties—I agree with a great deal of what has been said about the governance of the BBC—is a uniquely valuable resource. I would not want anything that the committee said or anything that might have been said in this debate to be used as ammunition against its continued support at a level sufficient to meet the very high expectations that we all have of it. However, as others have said, it should not be left to fly the public service broadcasting flag on its own. That would be bad for us and it would be bad for it.

Ofcom’s prediction to the committee that by 2012-13 the BBC will receive 91 per cent of all public service broadcasting funding is worrying, but the Government’s response to the report does no more than note that the issues are being considered by Ofcom and will be, at some unspecified point in the future,

I rather hope that the Minister’s eagerly anticipated maiden speech will allow him to amplify that response a little. As has been said, he has special expertise and his contribution, not only to this debate but to the discussion of these issues in the future, will clearly be of enormous value.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 296

8.01 pm

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, it is a very long time indeed since the committee first agreed to carry out the report. I recall that when we started it, the frontrunners in the American presidential election were Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, crunch was a breakfast cereal and banks were owned by private companies. In that time, we have produced a report of which we can be enormously proud.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord King, that in many ways it is the sort of report that only the House of Lords could produce. It has taken a very great deal of time and patience, and it is about having the ability to call and engage with witnesses at the level that we have done. As a relative newcomer to the arena, I was amazed at the willingness of journalists, proprietors and all sorts of organisations involved in news gathering to engage with the Select Committee. I was hugely impressed by the support that we got from our advisers and from the Clerks.

I say all that because there is a palpable sense of disappointment when one reads the government response. It does no service to the quality of the work that the Select Committee has done. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, who I, too, welcome today, will be able to bring a fresh eye to this and be able to treat the report with the respect that it deserves. I do not imagine that the Government would agree with everything in it, but there is so much detail here that it will not just serve as a useful starting point for policy now but, as years go by, it will be an interesting piece of academic work, because it sets out exactly where we are in an ever-changing environment.

When I was a child and thought about the news, it had a particular resonance for me, because everything stopped. There was one news bulletin that we all watched at around 6 pm, and woe betide you if you chatted during the news, because your parents had to wait another three hours before there was another news bulletin. I was reflecting yesterday about how different it is now and how, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, so graphically described, we are now surrounded by news. Even if you do not particularly want news, it comes at you through your car radio, or through vendors thrusting free sheets at you when you get on the Tube. It is superficially apparent that there is a lot more news about, but when you scrape not very far below the surface, you see that the mass has increased, rather than any sense in which the quality has increased. Our report highlighted well how the proliferation of ways in which the news comes to us simply has not been matched by an expansion in professional news gathering.

In private organisations, government departments, local authorities and hospitals, one of the burgeoning industries has been PR, which is growing to feed the insatiable demand for news; except that it is not news. It is produced by organisations with a partisan view and, to a large extent, it is often regurgitated wholesale by the recipients. From the point of view of citizens, it generates very little genuine new information. Given the starting point of the committee, which was the role that the news media plays in our democracy, this is about more than academic interest. The point that the

5 Nov 2008 : Column 297

noble Lord, Lord Maxton, made about balanced views is really important, but you can get a balance of views only if you have a diversity of supply.

I have spent around 20 years working in and around local government and, like all noble Lords, I believe passionately in the idea of a vibrant and participative local government. Local news media have always played an important part in that. In many ways, the role of local media ought to be more important now than ever. As ties of community decline and people do not talk to each other so much as word of mouth declines, accessing local news through newspapers and radio ought to be more important now than ever. It is also the case that local authorities have changed the way in which they do things. We now have cabinets rather than committees; we have local strategic partnerships, and hospital trusts meet in private. It is difficult for citizens to get a sense of what is going on in their area.

Local media have consolidated in the same way but in many ways in an accelerated form. Something like 70 per cent of the local newspaper market share is held by just four companies. Some 55 per cent of radio listening is to the BBC, and the remaining is the commercial sector, produced by just four companies. Does that matter? The National Union of Journalists certainly thinks so. In its evidence, it talked about how local papers have become part of a,

It sees that it results in a,

and it goes on to describe how time pressures are forcing local journalists to put through copy that is lifted straight from the press release.

When I became a councillor, every committee and sub-committee was attended by a reporter. It may have been a junior reporter, but someone was always there to report to local people what was happening. That does not happen any more. The Newspaper Society put a rather more rosy gloss on things, as we would imagine. It gave evidence about how economies of scale, sharing back-office functions, and so on, were beneficial. Even here, we heard that there are knock-on effects. For example, printing newspapers further away from the location that they serve results in stories having to be filed a day early. That means that quite often journalists are reluctant to put in a breaking story, because they fear that it will be out of date by the time it gets printed; so they are printing different sorts of stories.

Local radio news has gone through many similar processes. When I was first elected to the council, I would regularly go on to talk to the local commercial radio stations, but their news now is all syndicated. The calls that I get now are from BBC Radio Suffolk. That is fine, but we have to consider whether we really want there to be just one source of local news. Being pragmatic, it may be that, particularly in the current economic climate, consolidation is the only way of keeping any local news at all. Maybe we just have to be pragmatic and accept that. Certainly, the financial outlook for the local print media and commercial radio stations is not good, given their reliance on advertising and the migration of advertising online.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 298

It is partly for that reason that we recommended that the Government look again at the regulations governing cross-media ownership on a local level. It is rather counter to the general thrust of our report, which is more pro-regulation, but in this case the committee felt strongly that it will simply not be viable in some areas to sustain a minimum of three independent media voices all engaging in news gathering. We believe that if local mergers were subject to a public interest test, Ofcom could make these decisions on a case-by-case basis and reflect the different circumstances that pertain in various parts of the country.

In my childhood we moved around a lot because my father was in the air force. One of the things that gave me a sense of place and identity was watching the local news. Whether it was the Anglia knight or Mike Neville presenting “Look North”, I had a sense of place because of the television that I watched. That sense has been disappearing for some time now as ITV television regions have become larger and their commitment to producing local news has diminished. This leaves a problem, because the BBC is rapidly gaining a virtual monopoly on the provision of local news. As we have heard, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that makes it very difficult for ITV, and the commercial constraints make it difficult for it to produce local and regional news. There is a decision for us to make as a society—whether we think it acceptable to have a single source of local news, in other words the BBC; or whether we have to find mechanisms for keeping some competition in the system. Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I believe that it would be better for the BBC and the public if there were checks and balances through a multiplicity of provision. The Government will certainly have to look very closely at the governance of the BBC if we are to go further down the road of it being the only provider of local and regional news.

Michael Grade, in his evidence to us, was very honest about the fact that he thought the days of local and regional television were numbered. He saw the future solution as the rollout of a broadband service using ITV Local. He may be right in that, and the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, would certainly agree. However, the broadband service must be improved. Where I live in Suffolk the broadband service is not good enough to receive that news, and we are a long way from it. Where I disagree with the noble Lord is that this is not an either/or situation. If money is put into providing broadband but there is no money to gather the news in the first place, then having the broadband is irrelevant.

That brings me to my final point, which is at once simple and infinitely complex. We are all agreed that there are many news platforms, but we come back to the question of who pays to gather the news. It is not cheap to collect news, particularly international news. Someone has to pay for it. If advertising revenues are falling and people are reluctant to pay by subscription and do not want to pay the licence fee, there is a question about how important we as a society think independent newsgathering is and how it is to be paid for.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 299

8.13 pm

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate. It was originally programmed for last week and I would not have been able to participate, so I begin by thanking those who changed the timing—which, I fear, was an inconvenience to almost everyone else. Like other noble Lords on the committee, I have very much enjoyed our work preparing this report and seeing the titanic struggle between the noble dinosaurs and the noble anoraks. We have produced a conclusion which commands, in very general terms, the support of all of us. That is an interesting and worthwhile reflection on our work. I, too, welcome the Minister to this House and his maiden speech, although I fear that I will be disappointed, because, by convention, he is not allowed to say anything controversial. There will always be another occasion.

I should declare an interest as the non-executive chairman of the Cumbrian Newspaper Group, which owns local newspapers and radio. I do not wish to say anything about that, other than the fact that those sectors are under the financial cosh and are vulnerable to regulatory decisions which put them under more financial pressure.

Like many of the contributors to this debate, I have been involved in the media and politics, which enjoy a rather curious and slightly incestuous relationship. For me, my involvement in politics almost entirely preceded my involvement with the media. I can now fully understand why so many of my press releases about Europolitics were “spiked”.

It is a truism, although it may be slightly pompous, to say that the freedom of the press is a precondition of a responsible democracy and political process, but it is not any the less true because of that. It is equally true that checks and balances are important underpinnings of our liberties and freedoms and should have a proper place in the way in which we regulate the kind of topics that we are debating. Moreover, for journalism and the media properly to fulfil what I might describe as their civic function, news must be recognised as being not merely facts, but must cover comment and views which, after all, will inevitably be at best coloured and at worst partisan. Without that explanation, the facts may not make much sense to those who have them.

As we know, all those news and views are delivered to our fellow citizens by a range of increasingly varied instruments of communication, including newspapers, TV, radio and the internet. None is an exclusive means or conduit of communication to the wider world. When we look at the topics that we are discussing from a political perspective, from the House of Lords or government, it is terribly important to recognise the essential wholeness of the various means of communication, because although they are very different, and it is all a muddle, there is homogeneity across the whole scene.

No doubt, as with so much in this country, if we were starting from scratch to provide a legal and regulatory context to the provision of news, we would certainly not design it in the way we have. That is the starting point for discussing many United Kingdom institutions and systems. It is also important to recognise

5 Nov 2008 : Column 300

that if these means of communication are privately owned, they are likely, at least to some extent, to reflect the emphasis of the person who happens to own them. After all, that is a legitimate and inevitable consequence of ownership.

In that context, I ask the Minister what the Government’s line would be if a sovereign wealth fund, particularly one from a country which was not necessarily well disposed to ours, bought a UK national newspaper to advance its case. It seems obvious that proprietors of newspapers, whoever they are, do not appoint editors who are likely to organise that newspaper against the wishes of the owner, although the newspapers may not necessarily reflect the owners’ political views—although they might. The relationship between proprietors and editors does not depend on the issuing and receiving of detailed instructions from on high; rather, as I think I put it to Dominic Lawson, it is more like the relationship between a football manager and his chairman. At the end of the day the relationship depends on a paper being produced in a manner that gives satisfaction to whoever happens to be the proprietor. That involves fulfilling a financial and an editorial remit.

Also, if we are considering the nature of the relationship between the media and their owners, it is important to recognise that, while it is often supposed that the owner of any part of the media may wish to influence government, it may be in the interests of the proprietor, particularly if they have a wide range of other interests, to align themselves with the person whom he or she thinks is likely to be successful in the immediate future to safeguard their other interests.

Against that general background in the media world, it is right that there should be a number of legislative and regulatory rules to deal with potential problems and mischiefs. First, media companies are just like any other company, they are businesses. We have in this country antitrust rules and a competition authority which deals with that aspect of activities. I do not see why the media should in any way be outside that general system. Secondly, we know that in the interests of plurality of voice, there is a public interest test to ensure that there is no undue concentration of sources of news and information, in terms of the kind of message given to our citizens, which would undermine the ability to have free debate—a precondition of a free society.

Finally, particularly since the advent of television and radio, we have introduced into our media world a series of benchmarks in order to provide truth, accuracy and impartiality in the provision of news. That is important because it provides a basis from which comment can then be evaluated. Of course, in this context, carrying out this role is one of the major responsibilities of our public service broadcasters. Indeed, if we look at the regulation of broadcasting in this country, we see impartiality rules that go beyond the normal definition of public service broadcasters. Although I suspect that very soon we may see considerable changes in the public service broadcasting world, it is vital that this role, as the benchmark of impartiality and accuracy in the provision of news, is preserved and carried forward into what I suspect will be a very different picture in not many years to come. I echo the

5 Nov 2008 : Column 301

noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and others who have said that this cannot be left to the BBC alone; there must be a plurality as much in the provision of impartial news as in any other aspect of what is being delivered across our airways and down our fibre-optic cables.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page