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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:47 pm ar 27 Hydref 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Llafur 3:47, 27 Hydref 2022

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and to pay my thanks to the outgoing chair and, indeed, my obeisance to the incoming chair, as I seek to behave appropriately as a member of the committee.

My first point is an observation on how long it takes for a committee report to get its day in the Chamber. It is two years since we did this work. I think of our work on the future funding of the BBC, the future of Channel 4, the position of regulators and now our report on the creative industries and wonder just how old I will be by the time we get to the end of that list.

So it is good to have the report here. In a sense, rereading it with the advantage of two years’ space makes me aware of just how good a report it is. It makes as good reading now as it did then. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, subtly made a point that I will take home and think about. Yes, we had the age-old debate about the need to wed ourselves to the idea of freedom of expression as a human right, but we also had impeccable debates about the misuse of people’s data.

They were two debates that were truly impeccable, each adumbrating a principle which we should stand by with every fibre of our being. It seems to me that, since one seems like an unstoppable force and the other an immovable object, it would need the wisdom of Solomon to decide in particular instances how to favour the rights of those who feel their privacy has been invaded over the advocates—of whom I am one—of freedom of speech. But originators and recipients will go home with me, and I shall think seriously about it.

The digital equivalent of the public square is how social media platforms have been described, and indeed they are, yet the irony is that they are controlled by private companies. Out of that paradox come all the difficulties that we are wrestling with as we seek to get legislation that deals with this complicated world.

The protection of children has been adequately mentioned, and so it should be. I heard the Minister at Question Time yesterday talk again and again about the fact that looking after the interests of children is the predominant feature of the Government’s mind as they take legislation forward in this area. So I hope that the 5Rights work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, will be incorporated in that thinking and play a major part. Age verification is what she is very concerned about. I believe that her foundation has made significant progress towards getting something that we could work with, and I hope she has assurance on that point.

Early in this report, we were pointing the way forward, presciently I think, towards the Online Safety Bill that will soon be before us—or will it be soon? It has been put off so many times. I have no idea when it will finally be taken on the Floor of the House of Commons. Looking towards such a Bill, we emphasise the need for three aspects of consideration that we should take very seriously: the design of legislation, the nature of competition and the need for improved education in what the phenomenon of the internet and its applications means, not just in terms of helping children and adults to press the right buttons and to activate the machinery to do their will, but to understand outcomes and the essential nature of what anonymous contributions to conversations—or are they conversations if the contributors are anonymous?—can lead to. Well, I am very glad that this is before us.

I walk quite regularly under the statue of George Orwell at the BBC. I have almost memorised and thought a lot about the inscription from Animal Farm that is written on the wall behind the statue:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

That is fair enough. I have stood at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park many a time and have had a fair few things hurled at me. However, I want to add as a corollary, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right of people to tell me what I don’t want to hear”. I think that that might be a complementary way of looking at a very important principle.