Freedom of Expression (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:31 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 3:31, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I rise not because there is even more power in having “early” next to my name on the speakers’ list, but because the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has had to withdraw—I hope for non-serious reasons. We will miss his contribution.

I sincerely congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and the committee, for an excellent report and, as he has indicated, a timely one, as we move to the Online Safety Bill in the very near future, hopefully. I also look forward to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, following me. My mother, who was born in 1900 and left school at 13, was something of a philosopher herself, and used to tell me, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names can never hurt you.” That provided me with a certain resilience for my chosen profession of politics, but it is only partly true. Misinformation, fake news, and plain old-fashioned lies have been the prelude to tyranny, torture and murder throughout history.

Liberal democracies are particularly susceptible to such attacks. I am not talking about the Liberal Democrats but about that wave of parties in all free societies who believe in the freedom of speech that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert referred to, to free Parliament and the rule of law by an independent judiciary. They are particularly susceptible because they have built into their DNA a certain tendency towards tolerance and freedom of speech, and a reluctance to claim absolute certainties. I miss from these Benches today the late Lord Russell. Conrad would say, in response to a particularly dogmatic colleague, “I wish I could be as sure about one thing as the noble Lord is about everything.”

I have time to make only three short points. First, I commend the four regulators—Ofcom, the ICO, the CMA and the FSA—for the work they do to consult and co-ordinate, and I urge them to extend this to further protect the rights of citizens and consumers. I associate myself with the call from the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for the early establishment of the digital markets unit.

Secondly, digital citizenship should be a central part of the government media literacy strategy and be properly funded. I served on the Puttnam committee, which gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the 2003 Communications Act. We recommended that Ofcom give priority to digital literacy as a way of equipping the citizen and democratic structures for the new digital age. I am afraid that this is still work in progress, and I support the report’s recommendation that Ofcom assist in co-ordinating digital citizenship education between civil society organisations and industry.

Thirdly, the Government’s response contains lots of good intentions and box-ticking, but big tech will be judged, rather like the big energy companies on climate change, not by its ability to tick boxes or do its equivalent of greenwashing, but by what it actually does to address these very real problems. That is why I strongly support the report’s recommendation that a Joint Committee of both Houses be established to consider the ongoing regulation of the digital environment.

My old mentor, Jim Callaghan, was fond of saying, “A lie can be halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on”. This is truer than ever today, and liberal democracies must equip themselves and their citizens to protect their institutions and values from a real and present danger. This report and debate are an important contribution to us getting right how we protect our freedom and values in the years ahead.