Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

As I touched on a moment ago, in terms of general antitrust policy, it seems to me that media companies are no different from everyone else and, in that regard, they should be regulated by the competition authorities. I believe that plurality and impartiality should come within the role of Ofcom. I, like a number of other speakers, think that the idea that the BBC charter somehow safeguards its status is basically an outdated and romantic anachronism. After all, it was quite easy to sling out a large number of Members of your Lordships’ House by one Act of Parliament. I should have thought that, if you can do that, you should be able to change the BBC charter by an Act of Parliament without any trouble at all. I also agree with earlier speakers who suggested that the BBC’s current bicameral system—if I can put it that way—is not working properly, and I hope that the Government will reconsider some of their response in that regard.

I also regret that the Government are still opaque, although they are more emphatic, in their attitude towards the initiation of proceedings to remedy problems, where they clearly hanker to be the sole initiator of the process of remedying wrongs where wrongs might exist. After all, one of the underlying ideas behind regulation in the areas that we are talking about is to deal with the mischief of monopoly. It seems to me that if there is a monopoly of enforcement, such a monopoly is potentially sensitive, and perhaps dangerous. I am sorry that the Government seem to be unwilling to countenance the idea that there should be a right to a shared initiative in the areas where Ofcom is involved, particularly in the public interest test. It is important that we do not forget that, in the area of criminal law, a decision on whether to prosecute is outside the Government’s direct control.

The report is concisely entitled, The Ownership of the News, although this might be a tease because, just like wild animals and birds, no one can own the news; rather, it is relatively easy for those who own the presentation and delivery of the news to distort, edit and colour it. It thus seems to me to follow that it is essential, as part of contemporary political life in this country, that there should be a number of those who supply the news, a plurality of voice among those who present the news, and a datum level of impartial news against which opinion and the wider provision of information can be assessed. Finally, there should be no monopoly in the ability to initiate enforcement of the rules, not least as, whatever their political complexion, Governments are parti pris in some way or another to almost all news that matters.

8.24 pm

Lord Puttnam: My Lords, I am very grateful to the House for allowing me to speak in the gap, and I am very conscious of the time constraints under which that places me. I feel as though I have crashed a private party, so I shall at least endeavour to bring a bottle.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 302

I have three reasons for wanting to speak. The first is to welcome, and listen to the maiden speech of, my very good and much valued noble friend Lord Carter. We are very fortunate to have him take up this role at this point in the media cycle.

The second reason is to congratulate my noble friend—he is my friend—Lord Fowler for taking on the role of chairing this committee. A number of noble Lords in this Chamber fought very hard for the creation of the Communications Committee, most particularly the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. What I feel has been achieved is the legitimisation—in fact, the permanence—of this committee. I cannot imagine a situation in which the House authorities would decide that we could go on without a Communications Committee. That is an enormous triumph and I take my hat off to the noble Lord for achieving it.

The third reason is to quickly say something about the BBC. It was pointed out to me that 11 years ago today I had the privilege of entering your Lordships’ House. I want to try out a hypothesis on your Lordships. When I arrived here, I argued that there was overwhelming, and at the time relatively unconditional, support for the BBC. Equally, I argue that 11 years later there is still significant, but far from overwhelming, support for the BBC, and most of it is thoroughly conditional. That is not the fault of your Lordships’ House; the BBC should look long and hard at how this situation has been arrived at. I would argue that one reason is the BBC’s own ambiguities and contradictions, and its almost compulsive need to be seen to be doing everything. That is odd because the quality, breadth and range of its output—particularly its news output—have never been better.

Another problem is a very uneasy conflation of public purpose and commercial ambition. If the Government are to look at any one aspect of the BBC, it should be at beginning to unravel and untie that conflation. BBC Worldwide’s recent purchase of Lonely Planet set off a wholly unnecessary fire-storm. I do not know why it was felt necessary, but it has brought a lot of problems to the corporation, which it could unquestionably have done without.

The last thing that I want to say about the BBC’s problem is that it has to stop seeing its role as solely the defender of what it regards as its rights and understand that what we seek of it is a clear-eyed architecture of its own future. It must be the architect of its own future. I am afraid that I do not see that in any of the recent speeches of any of the senior members of the BBC—the director-general or even the chairman, both of whom I like very much indeed. They do not seem to have the breadth of vision to offer a future for the BBC. Their vision seems to be constrained entirely to defending where it is, what it is and giving up no ground whatever. I have never known any organisation successfully argue that position over a number of years.

I suggest that the Minister takes a good long look at the public purpose of the BBC and understands that, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is the gold standard that applies to all broadcasting. Sky News and ITN are as good as they are because of the BBC; it is our gold standard. At the same time, he

5 Nov 2008 : Column 303

should try to regularise, and give a coherent place in the totality of the UK’s media ecology to, the BBC’s public purpose role as against its commercial ambitions, which I think are doing it far more harm than good.

8.28 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, intervened in the gap. I am only sorry that he was not able to make a longer and more substantial contribution. I certainly count among the high points of my political life serving on the Puttnam committee—the pre-legislative committee that looked into the 2003 Act. As his time in this debate was constrained, perhaps I may add another contribution for him that I pulled out of the files. The noble Lord said that,

I enjoy keeping that quote on file because it catches very much why I continue to keep an interest in media matters—it is important in the essence of our democracy.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to his place. I was a little worried when my noble friend Lady Scott launched an attack on the PR industry. I am sure she had forgotten that both he and I have had distinguished careers in public relations. Perhaps she has also forgotten that the slogan of public relations is, “Give us the truth and we’ll varnish it for you”.

On the previous career of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, it is amazing just how much we accept and respect Ofcom. I was a member of the committee that looked at Ofcom before the legislation came in. There was great concern about creating an across-the-waterfront regulator with such responsibility. The fact that Ofcom is so respected has set the standard of research-based regulation and I believe it owes no little debt to the role played by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, as its first executive. I hope that he will be as innovative in his new job as he was when he took on Ofcom.

The noble Lord, Lord King, referred to the birth pangs of this committee, as did the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. It really was a struggle to get the committee established. I pay tribute to the persistence of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I like to think that if she is the godmother of the committee, I can think of myself as the godfather. I raise this point because the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, might be being optimistic. There is no guarantee that the committee will continue in the next Parliament. Its terms of reference are for the life of this Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said, it would be absolute lunacy to lose the committee, having regard to its track record and its future agenda of communications. I put that on the record so that, at the beginning of the next Parliament, we are ready to fight to ensure that the committee stays in place and continues its work.

I associate myself with the committee’s concern about the attendance of witnesses. As I am a member of the Procedure Committee and the Privileges Committee,

5 Nov 2008 : Column 304

I treat this matter very seriously. If appearing before Select Committees of Parliament became a matter of choice, the work of the committees would be fatally undermined. It is worth considering that if anyone did that in the United States, they would be put in jail. I think that both ends of Parliament should look very hard at an offence of contempt of Parliament for defying an investigation of a committee; otherwise, we will never have a committee system of Parliament which is given serious respect and authority, as we often want.

I think the Government’s response is pathetic. It is part of a line of government responses to committee reports, not just of this committee but others, and, as parliamentarians, we have to ensure that the Government treat reports, into which a great deal of work has gone and which deserve better consideration, with proper respect.

Many contributions have mentioned the reason why we regulate the media. I have gone through this with various media moguls and they have to understand that successive Parliaments under successive Governments have distorted the market. We are not in the business of guaranteeing an absolutely level playing field and a perfect working market. Why? Because Parliament realises that we are talking about an area of society which is not the same as selling beans, to use the usual cliché. We are considering how we talk to ourselves and to the world. Many speakers have emphasised that to do that we need to protect the public interest and to nurture and sustain one of the great gifts that we have inherited, which is the BBC and public service broadcasting.

I am well aware that we have moved into a new era. I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, before and he sounds very much like my 15 and 18 year-old sons. I was talking to my 18 year-old son about the United States election. He has been on chat rooms with American students talking about the issues in the election. They work in a different way from us. Nevertheless, as a number of speakers have made clear, the old systems, the print press and the major television companies, are still very important.

I strongly support the idea that Ofcom should be given power to initiate the public interest point, and the noble Lord, Lord King, put his considerable authority behind that. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that the business competition side is well covered by the Competition Commission and therefore the committee’s idea of a separation of powers makes a lot of sense. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, we had a lot of discussion about where the rights and responsibilities of the citizen and the consumer lay. I am pleased that this committee is much in favour of the citizen.

I reach the BBC. It must be reassured by yet another parliamentary debate in which speaker after speaker stands up and says that he will defend the BBC but, by gosh, it makes its friends’ jobs difficult. As somebody said, it must realise that it is not its own worst enemy; it has a hell of a lot of worst enemies out there. Why it plays into their hands, I do not know. The Ross/Brand affair involved two men who, although they do not know it, are fast slipping into middle age, aping teenage

5 Nov 2008 : Column 305

behaviour that I would not tolerate from my sons. It was rather sad. Perhaps Jonathan Ross might use his three-month sabbatical to read the biography of Simon Dee.

What the noble Lord, Lord King, said about the BBC Trust was spot on. Over 80-odd years the board of governors did not do too bad a job. It managed to sack director-generals, intervene when needed and, most of all, protect the BBC from interventions by politicians. It only broke down with an intervention that will remain a stain on the record of this Labour Government, who lost a very good chairman and a very good director-general in a political row. I hope that the new Minister will have a look at the committee’s suggestions about a statutory basis for the BBC and a system for its governance that will inspire more confidence than the present one.

I have now become chairman of the All-Party ITV Group. As with all all-party groups, it involves no financial benefit. The truth is that I became chairman of the All-Party ITV Group by arriving five minutes late for the annual general meeting. Nevertheless, I have always taken an interest in the diversity of our broadcasting. Last night, Michael Grade attended a meeting of the group. He spoke to Members of the Lords and Commons. There was a goodly turnout. There is strong parliamentary concern about the BBC’s plans for regional news and about losing one of the great strengths of ITV, its regional basis. I still remember the pride I took, especially when I was down at university in London, when up on the telly came “From the North, Granada presents”. It had regional pride, which is still important.

It is also important that we listen to Michael Grade’s warning. The regulatory regime that ITV finds itself in, coupled with the present financial circumstances, puts ITV in peril. We ought to make a proper and rapid judgment about how best we make sure that we keep what is best in ITV, which is, as Michael constantly emphasises, a £1 billion investment in Britain’s creative industries. That is not to be sneezed at when one considers—the BBC aside—the paucity of investment in those creative industries by the other players in the market.

I watched the American elections not just last night, but for weeks—I am an anorak in that respect. I dip into Fox News. I have to ration myself because I can feel my blood pressure rising. If anyone doubts why we must defend the BBC, I recommend carefully measured doses, under medical advice, of Fox News to see what we are fighting against and what we are trying to defend. Over the years, people have accused me of being obsessed with Rupert Murdoch. I am not; I am a great admirer of Rupert Murdoch. My only plea is that Ministers defend the public interest with the verve with which Mr Murdoch defends his shareholders’ interests.

The committee has already established itself as one of the great committees of this House, but I believe that its really important work may be yet to come. That is why I not only wish it well for the rest of this Parliament, but strongly hope that we commit ourselves at the due moment to its continuance in the next Parliament.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 306

8.44 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for introducing today's debate on the report by the Communications Committee, which I read with interest. It is a very timely contribution to the debate on this huge, fascinating and, as we have heard this evening, controversial subject.

We on these Benches welcome the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Barnes, to the House. I doubt that there could be a more apt debate on which he could make his maiden speech. I am sure that his experience in broadcasting and the communications industry will allow him to bring great expertise to his brief, and his sojourn as chief of strategy and principal adviser in No. 10 Downing Street will allow him to hit the ground running. We look forward to hearing from him.

As we know, there are ongoing changes in the way that our media are run and how they disseminate information, as changes in technology open up new avenues and close down old ones. As we heard from my noble friend Lord Fowler, the committee was right to place such focus on the provision of news in a free and pluralistic society, the free exchange of ideas and the provision of information. That is as important as ever.

We in Britain have a fine, though not flawless, tradition of reporting the news, in print, by wireless, internet and on television. I share with my noble friend Lord Fowler, the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Bonham-Carter, and many other noble Lords the belief that this country is served by one of the most successful public broadcasting services in the world. The cornerstone of that system is, of course, the BBC. The corporation may well be the most respected news-gathering organisation anywhere and it has a long established—although, again, not flawless—reputation for impartiality. The BBC has had a major impact on creative industries in this country, and the achievements of British public service broadcasting owe much to its work in the area.

However, the real success of British public broadcasting lies in its diverse nature. As we have heard, the presence of other high-quality providers, whether ITN, Channel 4 or Sky, has led to creative competition, which, in turn, has compelled the BBC to drive up the quality of its output. We feel that this model should be seen as one to follow: a number of separate news organisations, all contributing to the high-quality informing of their viewers.

This model is under threat following the Government's switch to digital. Despite all its crackles, there will be a cacophony of channels, not bound by the same public service requirements but which will split the advertising revenue available to those which are. We are already seeing cuts in the high-quality news programmes, not just on ITV and Channel 4, but on the BBC. The challenge for the Government, who have championed the switchover, is to come up with imaginative ways to maintain the provision of the high-quality and impartial news that we have a right to expect. I hope to hear that the Government have some thoughts of their own on that and are not simply waiting for Ofcom to tell them what they should do.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 307

In the printed media, conversely, the trend has been towards consolidation of ownership into the hands of just a few organisations and individuals. As several noble Lords, especially the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood said, a balance should be struck that allows a diverse range of opinions to be aired and the news to be reported without proprietors telling their staff what they can and cannot report. However, I remember the noble Lord, Lord Black, on “Desert Island Discs” a few years ago unashamedly and honestly admitting that one of the purposes of owning a newspaper was to have a certain amount of influence on it.

The Communications Committee is quite right—I congratulate the chairman—that all parts of the media play an important role in modern democracies, although I notice that much of the report was given over to developments in this country. It briefly covered interviews that the committee made during its visit to the United States. However, I have attended several important international conferences on cross-media ownership—in Luxembourg in 1988, in Paris in the early 1990s and in Rome last year. I trust that the committee took into account their reports on this subject. The title of the report might be “The British Ownership of the News”, as it basically covers only British and American views.

In an increasingly internationalised world where media companies bestride continents and the impact of new technologies, as rightly stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is truly global, I trust that the Government have policies to put in place which will cope with that reality. I was surprised and fascinated that only the UK and the US have been mentioned this evening. It would be far too parochial to ignore the international dimension. I agree with Mort Zuckerman, who says in the report that he is “a junkie for journalism”. I am pleased that this report has stirred up some imaginative questions and I hope that the Government have some imaginative solutions.

8.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting (Lord Carter of Barnes): My Lords, before I respond to the excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I should like to say a few words of a personal nature about myself and my role. I begin by extending my thanks to noble Lords for the warm welcome I have received from all sides of the House over the past few weeks. I genuinely appreciate the convention and the sincerity in the welcoming remarks made this evening. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, on her comments on the expansion of the Carter membership of this House—a view, I must say, that is shared by my mother—although it has to be said that, on any measure, I am at best half the Carter she is.

I hope that the confidence of the noble Lord, Lord King, in my alleged subject expertise will stand the test of time in this evening’s debate and beyond. I can advise him that I have not only read some of the committee’s previous reports, I have, unlike some

5 Nov 2008 : Column 308

newspaper proprietors, been called for evidence, appeared and given it. I hope that that will give me some knowledge as well.

Finally, perhaps I may highlight the welcoming comments from my noble friend Lord Puttnam, whose experience is extensive and includes his position as deputy chairman of Channel 4. He has been a friend and mentor of many, and I count myself fortunate to have been one of those. It was a particular pleasure to have been introduced to your Lordships' House by him and my noble friend Lord Currie, the noble percher. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is and always has been expert and elegant in offering constructive criticism to the friends and organisations he likes and admires. His comments on and to the BBC today are perceptive, and I hope that some members of the BBC senior management team are listening rather than broadcasting.

Perhaps I may also put on record my appreciation to the staff of this House for their helpfulness. On the day of my introduction, among other things, they could not have done more to put my two young children at their ease in this palace of gilt and grandeur, which can so easily overawe. My wife and I will be forever grateful for that.

I confess, given my ministerial brief, to being more than a little in awe of the extent and depth of experience and knowledge in this House about matters broadcastingand business, which have been so ably exemplified in this debate, not to mention the many professional political communicators who have mastered the skilful art of media communication and the cut and thrust of debate in the other place before going on to mastery in this House, a number of whom we have heard this evening.

In many ways I was brought up with the communications industries. In my early life, my father worked in the newspaper industry during the period described as the dynastic period of newspaper power and patronage. When the Daily Express was a broadsheet, and rather a fine one at that, if I may say, the Sun and the News of the World had recently been bought by a young Australian entrepreneur, and Bill Gates was just graduating from high school and writing his first payroll program in COBOL. I vividly recall my father’s time in Fleet Street, among other things renegotiating union arrangements for an earlier technology change, the transition from hot-metal printing.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page