Media Ownership (Regulation)

14 Sep 2011 - 10.59 am

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

Media ownership in this country is massively over-concentrated, and that has resulted in a number of problems, some of them profoundly unhealthy for our democracy. The media are so over-powerful that they have frightened and corrupted Governments of all political colours, and have chilled and intimidated Parliament and Members of this House in the performance of their duties. Vibrant British politics has shrunken into a grotesque tango between the press and No. 10 Downing street, who are unwilling but inseparably locked partners in a duopoly that diminishes all others, including Parliament, local government and civil society. For me, the ownership problem is not about the corruption techniques that have recently been exposed; it is part of the broader question of the settlement of our democracy: a democratic agenda, and a Britain in which people know their rights, own their politics, aspire to better for themselves and their families as citizens, and are less subjects and placid consumers of low-grade trivia.

The problems of the press pre-date hacking. There are a number of problems with the role of the press, including the constant denigration of individuals, the culture of cynicism, the trashing of whole classes of people—Members of Parliament know a little about that—the demise of the inspiring and investigative journalism that I was used to in my youth, the dumbing down of once-great newspapers, and the international reputation of our press. Those problems deserve a hearing, but I will not go into them in any detail here. All too often, the press will lead and the rest of the media pack—TV and internet—will fall behind the very low standards that are set. We deserve better from our media.

Today I want to focus on the greatest threat to a free and independent media: the over-concentration of ownership. When one person or organisation can become so insulated by its own power from scrutiny of its behaviour, and so important that Prime Ministers of all colours go cap in hand hoping for its approval, our already feeble and unwritten system of checks and balances becomes more obviously ineffective, and we should fear for our democracy and take action to protect it.

Much of the recent debate has been about symptoms not causes, about the things that the press themselves are interested in, including hacking and intrusion, and unhealthy links and relationships, rather than about what we as politicians should focus on: the power that distorts markets and politics alike. It is that distortion that drives the practices that we have recently seen, such as hacking and a tendency to be loose with the truth and protected from the consequences. The answer is to create a broader diversity of ownership of media outlets and let good, professional, effective journalists blossom and get on with their job of standing up for ordinary people and getting the truth our there for us all to consider and reflect upon.

Now is a good time to make progress. I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport for picking up on this problem, along with the Minister present today—the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). In the middle of the hacking scandal, the Opposition day motion on Mr Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB contained no reference to ownership. I amended it by adding that the Prime Minister

“should consider a statutory settlement for the press based upon the principles of diversity of ownership, fairness and honesty”.

That was happily superseded by the Prime Minister’s amendment to the motion, which set up the review of media ethics and regulation that we now know as the Leveson inquiry, and included

“the issue of cross-media ownership…more effective way of regulating the press—one that supports its freedom, plurality and independence from Government”.—[Official Report, 13 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 312.]

I am pleased that the Government have developed a position that includes those matters.

We all await the results of the Leveson inquiry, and I very much hope that it will balance its examination of the symptoms—some of the sexier press behaviour—with that of the causes, such as the lack of plurality of the media, and media and cross-media ownership. It should not be an incestuous inquiry, giving the media prurient stories about the media and thus feeding the cycle. It should look outwards at the media’s involvement in and relationship to our constitution and our politics. It should seek to lay the ground rules of a strong, independent media, with the possibility of opening up a new chapter and restoring the media’s reputation as a key contributor to the plurality of institutions in our democracy. That is what the media need to be, and Justice Leveson might help to nudge us all towards that better position.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that a plurality issue in Wales concerns the fourth channel, S4C, which is Britain’s only Welsh-language television channel? Many people fear that the proposed Government changes to the channel will jeopardise its independence. That is important, not just because of Welsh-language broadcasting but because of the plurality of media ownership. Many of us fear that the channel will be subsumed into the BBC, and that monolithic way of broadcasting cannot be good for any of us.

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend makes her point very eloquently, and the Minister will no doubt wish to refer to it in his concluding remarks.

Those of us who support effective regulation are the friends of an evolving, developing, vibrant and refreshed media and will not be painted as people who do not want diversity. On the contrary, the people who object to diversity and plurality are the very people who have a monopolistic settlement that they wish to preserve. It is very important to consider this matter, and that Lord Leveson, with the Minister’s encouragement, looks at proper regulation, not by the Government but by a strong, independent regulator that is respected by all parties. That should not be feared. We can consider the ethical codes that apply to the BBC and to independent television. Those codes are fair, uncontroversial and totally accepted, and there is absolutely no reason why we should not aspire to the same sets of ethics for the press.

Tougher media ownership laws are required in this country; the ownership of the press needs to be at the forefront of the debate. I hope that Lord Leveson does not decide that there has to be a totally comprehensive and coherent cross-media ownership set of rules, or that he is paralysed by dealing with sectoral ownership in the press, television or other media outlets. There should never again be the concentration of unaccountable power in this country that we have seen in the media in recent years.

While there is a well-documented history of the rich and powerful abusing media ownership and resisting regulation, there is also a history, from this place, of efforts to attempt to tackle the abuses. I would like to pay tribute to a former colleague, Clive Soley, who in 1992, when he was the MP for Hammersmith, called for a new independent press authority to investigate and monitor ethical standards of the press, distribution of newspapers, ownership and control of media, access to information, restrictions on reporting and any related matter that that authority might consider. He could have been speaking at the end of the recent hacking scandal, and I hope that Mr Soley feels that his day may soon dawn.

Certainly, the long-running weaknesses of the Press Complaints Commission have recently been starkly exposed, and it is here that self-regulation most clearly fails. Many of us may have suffered from being traduced in the media. We complain, and then the complaint disappears into the bowels of the PCC. Many months later, if we are lucky, we may get a microscopic apology on an obscure website. That is frankly no longer acceptable in a modern democracy and needs to be examined. Lord Leveson also needs to look at a right of reply that can be fairly and practically implemented, so that people feel that they have redress if they are wronged or feel wronged by the press.

I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport stated that we need to look carefully at cross-media ownership laws and whether the merger rules for media takeovers work as effectively as they could. Consideration must also be given to the suitability of those who push for greater slices of the media pie for themselves. Does the Minister support my call for a negative resolution of this House that would explicitly enable his boss, the Culture Secretary, to take the public interest into account, and which would give him the ability to order a fit and proper person test to be carried out in any future media acquisition? It would be a simple and modest safeguard to look after the interests of the broader media family. Also, does the Minister agree that an immediate amendment to the Enterprise Act 2002 to allow the public interest and a fit and proper person test to be taken into account in media takeovers would be a positive step that should secure all-party support? In doing that, along with introducing tougher cross-media ownership laws and ensuring the plurality of the media, we will finally be able to begin to develop a plural and diverse media in the UK and to tackle the causes of some of the gross abuses of power that we have seen from the rich and the powerful who own those organisations.

The key question is whether there is the will to do it. I hope that given the recent scandals, the Government can take courage from the public reaction to take the necessary steps. There is a moment here. Many of us have waited many years for it, and if it is not seized, we could wait many more years to give the press and the media the boost, encouragement and boldness to start to be a new part of a wider, broader and democratised constitution. Can the House of Commons, enfeebled by years of subservience to the Government and the media, also help to seize the opportunity? The jury must be out on that particular question.

If we get those two big institutions—the Government and Parliament—to work as effective partners with the media, instead of sour cynicism, denigration and mutual recrimination, we could enter a new partnership between those three institutions, with all of them playing an enhanced role. I hope that that will happen. If we do that, Parliament can be less inhibited in holding the Government to account and, above all, it will increase the potential for the Government to work for the future rather than for the next day’s headlines.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for securing this important debate. I hope that he will not mind or become cynical, thinking that I am trying to neuter his remarks, if I use this opportunity to say how much I admire him from afar for not only his sterling work in the House to protect the interests of Parliament, with which I wholeheartedly agree—we need a stronger Parliament to hold the Executive to account—but his valuable work on early-years education and, perhaps most importantly, his support for the great sport of cricket.

The debate raises a number of important issues, and I welcome the opportunity to have a constructive discussion about some of them. Media ownership is a high-profile issue at the moment; questions about the plurality of the media and its implications are live. It is interesting that the issues regarding News Corp’s takeover of Sky and the furore that that created are combined with the rapid changes to the press that new technology is bringing. It is only right and proper for us to discuss such issues and rehearse how the Government intend to address them. We want to look at media ownership constructively, as we do not want to set ownership limits that would have a disproportionate effect on growth.

Before I come to the main points in response to the hon. Gentleman’s debate, let me briefly address the points raised by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) in her intervention. I understand why she wanted to raise the issue of S4C. She is a champion of that important channel, which was set up in 1982 to promote Welsh language broadcasting and which has many glories to its name. I assure her that the Government intend to ensure that S4C remains a strong and independent force in broadcasting.

Our intention is that S4C should be funded via the BBC, and therefore the BBC should have some space on its board. There is already close collaboration between the BBC and S4C on the provision of news, for example. Nevertheless, there are important safeguards for independent content control for S4C. Discussions are currently ongoing between the BBC and S4C, which I understand are fruitful and productive.

On the debate secured by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, there are three areas that we need to look at: plurality, the Leveson inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and media ownership in general. As I said, the proposed takeover of Sky has brought the question of media plurality to the forefront. The News Corp bid highlighted problems with existing media ownership regulations that need to be discussed and debated.

When Ofcom produced its initial report on the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB, it identified a potential gap in the media ownership regime, which has been well aired. There is a potential weakness, in that the public interest test that accompanies questions about media plurality can be triggered only when a merger takes place. At present, the system cannot address concerns that arise from the organic growth of one particular media organisation.

We understand the need to look at the current system, but we do not want to rush into a change in media ownership regulations simply as a reaction to one controversial takeover bid. We do not want to make changes that could have knock-on effects further down the line, which we are not able to foresee. However, that does not take away from the fact that we want to investigate the issue thoroughly, rehearse and debate it in public and come to a conclusion as we approach the publication of a communications Bill and the parliamentary discussion of that Bill.

In the context of the Leveson inquiry, the hon. Gentleman also discussed the importance of regulation of the press, referring to the calls that have been going on for 20 years or more for proper independent regulation of the press. I note what he said about the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC has many critics, but it would say in its own defence that it works closely with people who have concerns about the press and often prevents the press from publishing damaging stories when agreement can be reached that a story is unfair. The good work of the Press Complaints Commission does not necessarily get the prominence that it deserves. However, the right of reply and the prominence of apologies are live issues that have been debated recently in the House.

Lord Justice Leveson is now conducting an inquiry focusing on the regulation of the press, the relationship between the police and the press and media ownership and plurality rules. Lord Justice Leveson held his first preliminary hearing last week; his work has only just started, and he has many issues to consider. The inquiry will concentrate initially on the behaviour and practices of the press, but he also intends to consider media plurality, as I said. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department will co-operate fully with the Leveson inquiry.

It is important to emphasise that the inquiry is completely independent. It is up to the inquiry to ask my Department for assistance rather than for us to be seen to influence the inquiry in any way. We are responding to information requests from the Leveson inquiry. When the report concludes, the Government will of course listen carefully to its recommendations and incorporate them, where appropriate, in final decisions about the Bill on media ownership and the future regulation of the press. We must be mindful of the time scale for the Leveson inquiry, which aims to examine the issues of press regulation and media ownership within a year. We want to hear what the inquiry says, as it will be a significant piece of work on media regulation.

In general, we believe that it is important for the media to reflect different viewpoints at national level and to safeguard democratic debate. Media ownership rules are important to prevent any one UK media company from obtaining too great a concentration of media power. Competition rules will usually ensure an outcome that promotes plurality, but not always, because they are designed to prevent abuses of market power. It is possible for someone to be dominant from a plurality point of view without acting in an anti-competitive fashion. Without additional plurality rules, we will be unable to prevent a concentration of media power.

As I said in my opening remarks, we are acutely aware of how changes to technology make media ownership and plurality complicated issues. The media landscape is changing rapidly, as is the way in which it influences debate and informs citizens. It is therefore even more important that the rules do not allow one person or organisation control over the entire media landscape. At the same time, it is also important that the rules do not unreasonably constrain the working of the market. We want a vibrant media sector capable of innovating and of attracting investment, ideas and skills. The challenge is to strike the right balance.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will make a speech this evening at the Royal Television Society conference. He will outline his early thinking on numerous issues across the media sector, and will address in particular media ownership, plurality and press regulation. As was reported earlier this week and as he will say this evening, the Secretary of State has asked Ofcom to prepare a report on the options for measuring media plurality given the new online world in which we exist, to recommend the best approach and to supply a copy of the report to the Leveson inquiry. That work will form part of our communications review, but I hope that it will also assist the Leveson inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman called on me and the Government to support a change now to media ownership regulations. Specifically, he asked us to support the proposals of the shadow Culture Secretary, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). With the greatest respect, I am not sure that those changes have been entirely thought through. I am not sure whether the shadow Secretary of State has the power to introduce such a change; my understanding is that the Enterprise Act 2002 allows only the Secretary of State to do so.

More importantly, to discuss the substance of the proposal rather than any technical hurdles to its adoption, Ofcom is already required to ensure that any person holding a broadcasting licence is and remains a fit and proper person to hold it. That requirement is ongoing, not a one-off requirement limited to mergers. I am not sure that the amendment is necessary, and it could narrow the scope of the current duty on Ofcom.

My further concern with the proposals of the hon. Member for Bury South, bearing in mind that he is not here to defend them, is that they could add to the politics of the situation rather than detract from them. The Secretary of State conducted himself impeccably throughout the News Corp takeover process. He sought legal advice at every stage, he was transparent and he published that legal advice when appropriate. Nevertheless, the fact that a politician had the final say in the takeover proposal allowed people to speculate that undue influence was being exercised. It therefore seems likely that the direction of travel in such contentious takeover proposals is to try as far as possible to remove politicians from the process.

What concerns me about the proposals of the hon. Member for Bury South, well meaning though they are, is that they would effectively allow a Secretary of State to take into account new factors, which seems wide open. Almost any factor could be taken into account and inserted into the current process, which would create enormous uncertainty for every media company in the country—and perhaps inadvertently increase, rather than reduce, political interference in such processes. For that reason, we do not support the proposals. The Secretary of State has written or will write a response to the letter sent to him by the hon. Member for Bury South calling for his support for the proposals.

Mr Allen: Before the Minister concludes, I should say that he is making a sensible and rational contribution to an extremely important debate. Will he say something ridiculous and outrageous so that his comments will be reported fully in the press tomorrow, rather than ignored?

Mr Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is a matter of regret. As he well knows, there is an adage: “If you want to tell a secret, the best place to do it is probably in the Chamber of the House of Commons,” because it is rarely reported. Those of us who love the House of Commons and politics would love for the media to return to devoting a page in the newspaper to reporting parliamentary proceedings. We have to listen to Radio 4’s “Today in Parliament”, or there is, of course, the BBC Parliament channel, which we can watch all day if we want. Many of us—I am sure that you are the same, Mr Hood—prefer nothing to watching the Parliament channel whenever we get a spare moment, catching up on the odd Select Committee appearance by our colleagues and so on. I find it riveting viewing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. As I said, a huge number of issues are involved, including media plurality, media ownership and regulation of the press. Our approach is twin-track. We are moving towards an important communications Bill in a changing area of technology, alongside the important and independent Leveson inquiry into the press.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.