The final point that I will make might have some appeal to the Minister and the Government. If the British Government do not do anything, Brussels is now chomping at the bit in its desire to get involved and to interfere in a very fundamental way with the press. I quote from the consultant Alison Sprague. She says that a recent EU consultation,

“advocates a much more proactive role by the Commission in the areas of media freedom and plurality in member states”.

I was in the House recently when a pressure group was advocating precisely such interference on a European basis. By God, I do not know what that would do to the press if it ever happened, but I know what it would do to the Conservative Party. I trust, therefore, that we will find a home-baked solution to this and not wait for Brussels to impose a Brussels-based solution.

3.22 pm

Lord Stoneham of Droxford: My business experience in the media sector confirmed to me that free markets and competition do not reach a steady state equilibrium where competition markets ensure fair and free competition. Most owners seek more market share to give them greater dominance and control in their markets, to better control prices, set higher margins and increase profits, particularly if greater market share deters new entrants. These media markets are not in fact that big and the players are very limited.

The growth of online and other media channels is encouraging diversity, which is to be welcomed, but the bigger companies retain great power and may in time sweep up the diversity of the principal new entrants into their control. This is how they normally work. It is also a fact that not simply objective measures of fair competition need to prevail in the media sector.

My noble friend Lord Sharkey described the Ofcom definition of plurality as ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across and within media enterprises and preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda. Inevitably, in making the second judgment there is bound to be an element of subjectivity, particularly determining what “too much influence” is.

One overriding conclusion from Leveson must be that one media group did have too much influence. But sadly, in my view, Leveson did not address plurality concerns as much as he should have done and there will be much less point in adopting his recommendations on standards and complaints unless we do. There is a danger that prolonged arguments over complaints regulation and standards means that plurality is being pushed into the long grass and ignored when it should be central to everything.

The one publisher who was too influential and too dominant was News International. The Sun dominated the tabloid market, and the Sunday Times and the Timestogether were pretty dominant in the old broadsheet market, or at least they more than challenged the

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, and undermined other competitors through aggressive pricing campaigns made possible by much larger resources. The growing importance of Sky as a non-domestic satellite broadcaster—now with almost 50% more resources than the BBC—adds to its influence even though its news share is low.

A lot of issues arose from this combined market dominance of News International. It affected the way politicians dealt with the company and the grovelling it indulged in to gain a political competitive advantage. It affected the way its power could be regulated as any attempt to restrain the company could be repulsed by aggressive and effective lobbying, as we saw when issues of control arose relating to Sky and News International. It affected the industry’s plans for investigating complaints. It also affected the police, who always felt that they had to keep the company on side. Fortunately, dominance eventually bred arrogance as executives and editors whose hinterland of judgment was faulty severely damaged the reputation of News International. However, it could fight back and undermine anyone coming for it, whether politician, policeman, journalist or major competitor. It began to think that it was untouchable, and for a time it was. However, that reputation was damaged once the pack of cards was convincingly challenged.

What we need now is a new policy and definition of plurality to build on the work of Leveson: otherwise, it will all be in vain. I find it inconceivable that News International should be able to hold onto its news market share while coming again to gain total control of Sky. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, it is incredible how near it got with another faulty proposal for independent directors. The current procedure for mergers must be retained, but it will need to be more open and transparent. We have to ask ourselves why a 25% share of revenues should not be the simple control. We will need a more explicit definition of plurality for the four-yearly Ofcom review of the sector if it is maintained, as I believe it should be.

3.27 pm

Lord Parekh: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for securing and introducing this debate. I want to approach this question slightly differently. In the Leveson report and elsewhere there is an enormous emphasis on who owns what, on what percentage of shares in the media are owned by News International or any other body.

Ownership is certainly important, because our ultimate concern in a democracy is to ensure that the media are balanced, objective, impartial and represent a diversity of points of view. This is what the political culture of a democracy is about. Ownership becomes important only in so far as it stands in the way of these objectives, which of course it does. I do not doubt that at all. After all, Murdoch’s 173 newspapers worldwide supported the Iraq war. That kind of homogeneity does not spring up from nowhere; somebody is imposing it. My good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, just told us what happened when one particular Peer speaks and he alone is mentioned in the newspapers.

Yet supposing we had not one but five Rupert Murdochs—not one press baron but five press barons—would that necessarily guarantee the kind of democratic

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culture that we want? That happens in India, where not one but half a dozen barons have control. What happens? They collude, form a cartel and break rules, as various oil companies and banks have done; or collectively, they are subject to certain commercial pressures, and therefore end up behaving in exactly the same way; or they have certain common interests as proprietors, and therefore while they may compete, when their common interests are at stake they are all as one.

While ownership is important, it is not enough. I do not want us in this country to make the mistake of thinking that if no one owns more than 30% or 40% of shares in the media, somehow the problem will disappear or the problem will be solved. It will not; it will continue to haunt us. As I said, it is perfectly possible for press barons to collude, unite, form a cartel and continue the ugly practices that we would rightly condemn.

It also does not matter whether or not these people are domiciled because indigenous capitalists are not necessarily better than those settled abroad, nor does it matter whether or not they pay taxes here. We seem to be clutching at straws. I suggest that the problem is so deep that, although ownership is important, we need to concentrate on other things as well. We should be prepared for a world in which you might have multiple ownership but still the problem that worries us continues to haunt us. There may be a lack of balance and impartiality, no diversity of views and all the phone hacking and ugly practices that brought the Leveson inquiry into existence.

Nor do I think it is terribly important to inquire how often the Culture Secretary or the Prime Minister has met this or that media mogul. It is all right for public consumption but this is not how decisions are made. Friends of the Prime Minister talk to friends of media moguls and things get decided, or the media create a climate which channels the Prime Minister’s or Culture Secretary’s thinking in a certain direction. Looking at the log or the e-mails sent would not by itself help us to understand how decisions are made. Therefore, I suggest, with great humility, as I am not a media man but a boring, abstract philosopher, that we need to concentrate first, on how to stop this sort of thing happening irrespective of how many owners we have, and, secondly, on the concrete, positive mechanisms of self-correction that we can build into our system.

I want to run though half a dozen ideas which I have canvassed in my writings and in various speeches I have made in your Lordships’ House. First, I entirely agree that we need a strong regulatory mechanism and must insist on and enforce certain standards that Leveson has urged. Secondly, we must have an independent and publicly funded body to audit the media coverage of important issues; assess how they have covered these issues on the bases of accuracy, impartiality, balance and self-correcting procedures; and inform the public which media have behaved in which way. I refer to the example just given by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. We should name and shame the media in exactly the same way that we name and shame schools, teachers and NHS trusts.

Thirdly, we should make sure that the media give regular space to alternative points of view. There is no reason why 10% or 15% of the space in any newspaper

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or media—as used to be the case in Canada and elsewhere—or even 15% or 20% of the space could not be allocated to those who take a different point of view. Public funds should be made available to marginalised groups to enable them to articulate and promote their point of view.

Fourthly, we must safeguard the integrity of publicly owned institutions such as the BBC and ensure that they remain objective, command popular support and provide an alternative to the profit-driven media. Fifthly, there is no reason why Parliament cannot have a Select Committee on media coverage and hold public hearings where newspaper proprietors, journalists and others are required to explain why they have covered events in a particular way. Such a committee could examine systematic lies about membership of the European Union or about immigration. There is no reason why a parliamentary committee could not call press barons to account and ask them to explain their actions. I will speak for one minute more and then I am through.

Sixthly, MPs and Peers are expected to declare their interests, and I have never understood why journalists are not required to declare theirs. If a journalist has enjoyed the hospitality of a company or is a member of a party and writes about an event, it is important that he should declare his political and financial interests. Similarly, a newspaper editorial should not comment on an issue in which the owner of that newspaper has a stake. The constraints imposed on MPs and Peers should also be imposed on media proprietors and journalists.

3.34 pm

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for raising this debate. I put my name down because I am suffering some frustration in this area. Since Leveson reported, we have focused on the behavioural aspects of journalists and not on what is not the longest part of Leveson but is an extremely important part, and deals with morality.

While I do not disagree with some of the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, about action, ownership is absolutely important. I go back to what I said on the first Statement on Leveson, which is that a truly free press requires diversity of opinion, and diversity of opinion requires plurality of ownership. We do not have anything like plurality of ownership. Oligopoly can be as bad as monopoly and sometimes, whatever the structure of ownership, people will behave badly, but if you have a press and a media system that are overwhelmingly dominated by very large companies, the public interest, and the interests of democracy and diversity of opinion, are not served. Leveson recognised that and made a number of proposals on that front.

Since then, we have had hours of parliamentary debate in this House and elsewhere on the behavioural aspects. We have at least two propositions on various forms of royal charter and have had acres of coverage in the newspapers. I therefore understand why emotions are raised by the issue and I sympathise with both sides to some extent. I recognise the hurt that victims feel and that they want to see something done. Likewise, I recognise that journalists are concerned about the

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freedom of the press. I understand why we have had that debate. However, the other side of it, the plurality side, deserves equal attention.

I raised this on the first day that Leveson was reported to this House and was told by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that any decision on it was above his pay grade. I got a similar reply during the passage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which dealt with the competition structure and would have been a perfect vehicle for the Government to come forward with some proposals. Eventually, they did not, even at the last minute. When I tried again at that final stage, it was not really discussed because of the kerfuffle about the royal charter. I received a letter from the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, saying that in his recommendations Lord Justice Leveson did not address the technical means of achieving his outcomes but acknowledging that this is an important issue. It then said:

“In light of that, the Government will consult to seek views on these proposals and, most importantly, how they might work in practice. This will be in place before the summer recess”.

We are getting fairly close to the Summer Recess, but we have heard nothing else.

One light on the horizon is the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and his initiatives in this respect, but the reply that he got from the Secretary of State, which he has just related to us, does not give me great encouragement to believe that the Government are moving forward. Certainly, it does not suggest to the Select Committee that it is going to get much from the Secretary of State before the Summer Recess. I wish the Communications Select Committee good speed. I hope that it manages to get some government engagement but, at the moment, the suspicion is that this element of Leveson has been put on the back burner or kicked into the long grass, whatever expression that you care to use, because politicians in the Government and perhaps the political class more widely than the Government are concerned that we must not upset the owners of the media, in particular the print media, as well as cross-media ownership.

Unless we grasp this nettle, Governments from here on will be equally hesitant to take a line that will be rubbished by major media moguls. It is right that in all countries there are big owners of newspapers and television stations and so forth and that politicians always have to recognise that and deal with them. In this country, there is a particular structure with the domination of Murdoch. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lipsey that Murdoch has brought some benefits to this country. I do not think that his journalists are more evil than anybody else, but they are uniquely powerful, and democracy cannot allow uniquely powerful organisations to continue to dominate our news media. I therefore hope that the Minister can tell us today rather more than he told us when he replied to the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, recently, when he said that the Government were still thinking about it. I hope that they will do something, preferably before the Summer Recess.

3.40 pm

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for securing this debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.

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There has been a reasonable degree of unanimity around what we have been discussing, which is all to the good and plays to the spirit of the royal charter debates that we had. We therefore have something that we should continue to build on.

When introducing his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, gave us a good and quick tour d’horizon of how we got to where we are, which echoed a lot of what I have thought about the issue. He has also picked up an important point that there a lacuna in the public’s understanding and awareness of why media plurality is so important and how we need to deal with it. I was also struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and his frustration at being isolated and not having sufficient guidance about where the Government stood on this. He likened it to the play, “Waiting for Godot”. I think that it is more like “The Maltese Falcon”. I smell a McGuffin in the air; I am not sure what it is, but that is the point of McGuffins—we do not know what they are. They certainly take your eye off where the action is and leave you grasping for how events turn out. I suspect that we are in that sort of mode where there is something happening but, rather like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern —to change my metaphor again—it is all happening just a bit offstage and we are not part of it.

I have three important things to say—well, they are important to me and I hope that they are to those who are listening. First, if one reads the whole of Leveson, which I have, it is a very rich resource for those interested in this area, and not all of it is ever quoted or brought out. The section on plurality, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, it is not as long or extensive as some of the other stuff, but it is very important. Leveson analyses it out in a way that I have never seen before, but it is worth reflecting on why we care so much about plurality. It is not because plurality is not important but because it is only a surrogate for what I think is at the heart of the debate, which is trying to ensure that the media are indeed of central importance for a healthy and well informed democracy. Therefore, control of the media should not be concentrated in too few hands. That is a slightly different way from how many people, particularly media commentators, have done it. We have tended to rush to a view and have brought up measurement schemes and other things around what we can find out about plurality as an issue in itself. In fact, it is only a surrogate for what we are trying to get at, which is about a different discourse and a different culture around the engagement of those people with our democracy.

In a sense, the Communications Act 2003, for which my party was responsible, has very good measures on plurality. It says that there are two needs in any assessment of this: a sufficient plurality of views in newspapers in each market for newspapers; and, changing slightly, a need for sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving every audience in the UK. We can see why it is important but we must bear in mind that it is only a surrogate.

My second point is that we have tended to use as the measuring medium news and current affairs when considering plurality. Others have mentioned this before but increasingly, particularly in a multimedia- and internet-based society, we have to think of many more

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things. YouTube is not news and current affairs but that is where most people now gather information and ideas. If we are looking at news and current affairs only in a very traditional sense, we may be led astray.

My third point is on the purpose of this debate, and I hope that the focus of the Minister when he responds will be on what Leveson actually recommended. Nobody has referred to that. We have existing regulation in place, much of which Leveson regards as being satisfactory. There are only a few areas where he thinks that there should be change. It is about trying to bridge the gap between where the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, is and wants to be, where my noble friend Lord Whitty would like to be by the Summer Recess, and where the Minister probably is—I hope that he is running fast to catch up. The gap is not that big. We are not asking for a huge amount.

I go back to the point about democracy: we must be clear about what we are looking at. Let us keep that under review because in a changing world and a changing environment, it is not necessarily sufficient to concentrate only on news and current affairs. Secondly and obviously, we must now begin to measure and to include online publications in any market assessment for consideration of plurality. Much more work should be done on the theory of how media priority should be measured. That point has been touched on several times in the debate. It is not easy and can be very complicated. I do not think it is as simple as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, was trying to suggest. There has to be more to it, as I have tried to say in my argument.

The question of whether or not one can rely on competition law has been raised. Leveson says that,

“the levels of influence that would give rise to concerns in relation to plurality must be lower, and probably considerably lower, than the levels of concentration that would give rise to competition concerns”.

That is an important point. He thinks that the levels must be reduced for the media. The Government should consider whether periodic plurality reviews should take place. We agree with that and I think some are already happening. The final points that Leveson makes are about who takes the final decision. We did not touch on that but I think it is important because it was raised—in spades—in terms of the BSkyB issues. The Secretary of State should remain responsible for public interest decisions.

There is not much to change; much of that is in place. It would not take much for the Minister to convince us that action has been taken and I look forward to hearing from him.

3.46 pm

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Sharkey for this short debate on how the Government plan to take forward the issues of media ownership and plurality in the light of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. This clearly is an important issue, and plurality is vital for a healthy and well informed democracy. It is equally clear that we must get this right, and I have listened very carefully to the many comments made by your Lordships today.

In September 2011, this Government publicly commissioned Ofcom to provide advice on the issue of media plurality, which was then considered by Lord

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Justice Leveson. I think the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, put some sharp focus on the fact that it may not have been the largest part of the report, but that does not mean to say that it is not a very important part of it, as other noble Lords have indicated.

As was acknowledged by Lord Justice Leveson, the broad constraints of the work that the inquiry had to undertake meant that there was not sufficient time to look at these matters in detail. As a result, Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations in this area were,

“at the level of desirable outcomes and broad policy framework, rather than the technical means of achieving those outcomes”.

That, I think, recognises that plurality is a complex issue: it is concerned with what is available in terms of the number of different media voices but also with what information people consume. As was identified by Lord Justice Leveson, a number of questions flow from this. The first relates to scope—for example, how far plurality rules apply to online as well as to more traditional news platforms. A second question relates to measurement—the number and range of metrics that provide an indication of the level of plurality and, indeed, sufficient plurality. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, that there is a complexity about these matters; it is not a quick fix. A third question relates to remedies—the range of available remedies, whether structural or behavioural. A fourth question relates to triggers for action—what might trigger a review of plurality or action, such as the imposition of a remedy. I also agree with the point raised by the noble Lord about whether periodic plurality reviews or an extension to the public interest are most likely to provide a timely warning of and response to plurality concerns that develop as a result of organic growth.

The Government have committed to seek views on these issues and on how to take forward Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. I am very conscious of the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood on these matters, but I can assure noble Lords that this will be a thorough and well thought-out piece of work, and the process will begin this summer. It will build on Ofcom’s advice and Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations in this area. I also emphasise, conscious of what my noble friend Lord Inglewood has said, that the work of your Lordships’ Communications Committee will provide another valuable source of evidence and analysis. I believe, having discussed this with colleagues, that this is the reason for the manner in which the response was couched, not because there was any lack of courtesy or understanding, and that this work will be immensely valuable to the considerations.

My noble friend Lord Sharkey raised the idea of a revenue cap, as indeed did other noble Lords. At times, the Opposition have raised this as well and have made similar recommendations. As the Ofcom report highlights, this may well present difficulties. The dynamic nature of the UK’s communications sector means that at this stage it will be hard to find a generally accepted consensus on a definition of the UK’s cross-media market, or have the same view of its revenue and of the revenue accorded to firms operating with it. There is more work to do in that area.

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One aspect raised by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Stoneham—the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, used the words “in a changing world” that I was particularly struck by—is that we have seen such changes to the face of the media over just the past decade. There is the online sector and we will see all sorts of other innovations that we have not thought of yet. That is why I think that Lord Justice Leveson concluded that these should be part of any market assessment of plurality. Within 10 years, Google News and Facebook have become two of the three most used online sources for news after the BBC. I have, of course, noted what my noble friend Lord Sharkey said, but we need to address the influence of the providers of news generally. Nevertheless, consumers are benefiting from these new services, so it is important that in any new plurality regime such innovation continues to be supported.

I understand that the Opposition have proposed a cap on the UK’s national newspaper circulation. I am as yet unclear whether this would be defined by print run or by readership, but as the whole media market is changing, that may not actually address the issue in the most skilful way. In a world in which people get their news from multiple sources and use a range of different platforms to access news content, the extent to which newspaper circulation correlates to influence may potentially become less clear.

I was also very interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, had to say on ownership, about some of the experiences from the Indian media, and the six points he made. The point is that the trend of change introduces other new challenges. While exposure to a great range of new sources is undoubtedly positive, an increasing array of information also heightens the possibility that people will use internet search engines to modify selectively their own news intake. Indeed, search engines support this by prioritising news content based on a user’s previous searches. This is why Ofcom highlighted that the availability, consumption and impact of news media were relevant measures of plurality. The report made clear that an inflexible prohibition on market share was not currently advisable. It stated that,

“setting absolute limits leaves no room to take account of the broader context, and this creates a risk that it is not possible to address issues of commercial sustainability and innovation in an appropriate manner”.

Lord Justice Leveson similarly concluded that no compelling evidence was put forward to support arguments for any fixed cap on media market share.

It is for those reasons that I used the words “quick fix”. Colleagues may not appreciate them, but I think that a quick fix is not sensible and we need to proceed with care. That is why Lord Justice Leveson recommended that work should be undertaken with the industry on a measurement framework for plurality in order to achieve as great a measure of consensus as possible on the theory of how it should be measured. In many communities, the issue will be the extent to which there is a regional source of news alongside the BBC. Some expressed concern about the growing predominance of our national news market by foreign news media. We need to think very carefully as to the extent to which any new plurality regime might in practice give

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the foreign news media a competitive advantage. These issues all warrant a level of detailed consideration that was not possible in the context of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry.

In all this, clearly we must not forget the strength of the UK’s news sector. We have world-leading journalism and a wide range of trusted providers and editorial voices. I think the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on European interests will strike home but, to be honest, the Government are not likely to expect or permit Brussels to take on what is a UK responsibility. However tempting it may be and however strongly people feel, we have a responsibility to make sound decisions in the best interests of the country as a whole. This necessarily entails due process and engagement with those concerned to minimise the risks of unintended consequences—for example, around innovation and growth.

I want to assure your Lordships that work is in hand. I am conscious that a number of noble Lords,

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and perhaps all noble Lords here, want to have some indication that the Government take this issue seriously. It is serious, which is why it needs to be done properly. The Government will set out this summer how they plan to seek views on these issues and how to take forward Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.

Lord Inglewood: Before my noble friend the Minister sits down, perhaps I might make two points having heard his interesting remarks. First, can he confirm that he will write to me in response to my remarks? Secondly, can he tell the Committee when the last day of summer comes?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: I am of course always very happy to write to my noble friend and I shall confirm the points that I made. I will reply to his other point by saying that I know when the first day of autumn is.

Committee adjourned at 3.57 pm.