Media Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:34 pm ar 28 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:34, 28 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I will start with a reference to the amendment to the Motion laid by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I fully understand the noble Lord’s frustrations. Concerns and questions over this issue have been raised multiple times in both Houses. I have asked previously whether the Government have any plans to review rules on media ownership and to date have received no answer. We recognise the Government’s response that they are awaiting the conclusion of investigations by the CMA and Ofcom. However, I wonder whether the Minister can offer an opportunity, perhaps outside of this debate, for noble Lords to raise issues and hear from the Minister or Secretary of State on this. That said, we have waited 20 years for the Media Bill in front of us. I will focus my remarks on the substance of the Bill which has finally reached us, but I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, later in the debate.

The Minister has fairly set out the rationale behind the Government’s Media Bill but, of course, he has not given us the full story behind its arrival here in the Lords. We were promised this particular piece of legislation a long time ago. Finally, two years ago in the 2022 Queen’s Speech, details were provided of a media Bill, although this turned out to be a draft Bill published in March 2023. Some commentators have said that this has been in the offing for nearly 10 years. I do not intend to try to embarrass the Minister; the delay is embarrassment enough.

We would certainly have had a Bill earlier in this Parliament if it had not been the subject of internal wrangling about the future of Channel 4. However, we are pleased that the Government saw sense and dropped their desire—or the desire of the former Secretary of State—to privatise it. I suspect that if they had pursued that course, they would have upset the whole public sector broadcaster eco-structure. I suspect that it would have also made the Minister’s job today a whole lot harder.

It was way back in 2003 under the previous Labour Government when the legislative framework for public service broadcasting was renewed. So much has changed, as the Minister said, since the Communications Act 2003. As the Government have rightly asserted, much has changed in the media landscape. We now have on-screen entertainment divided into linear broadcasting and on-demand streaming services. Broadcast radio has also changed, with the public being able to choose how they access on-air services. The Government have argued that these changes make it essential that public service broadcasting, on-demand programme services and commercial radio have a new regulatory framework. We agree wholeheartedly with that. For that reason, we support the Bill.

The Bill is important, as the Minister has said, because it brings media legislation into the digital age. Although the Bill lacks a commanding overall vision for broadcasting in the UK, the PSBs believe—and we think they are right—that it is in good shape as currently drafted and it will enable that sector to thrive and develop, not just here but will enable us to compete internationally, where our public service broadcasters are much admired.

The PSBs and other stakeholders are all rightly keen that the Bill passes into law as quickly as possible, so that they can have the long-awaited certainty they need for programming, commercial and long-term planning. However, that should not detract from our duty as legislators to ask questions of the Government and, where appropriate, to seek to amend the Bill. However, I assure the House and those listening eagerly to the debate that we support the Bill and will be looking to work on a cross-party basis to get it on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

We are also conscious that with advertising revenue shrinking in a highly competitive market, the commercial PSBs will not welcome any additional undue cost burdens being placed upon them. Several, including Channel 4 and ITV, have indicated that to remain sustainable as businesses, they will have to reshape their business model.

There are a number of key issues the House will want to scrutinise carefully, including prominence for our PSB services and ensuring that audiences are protected and have access to varied and high-quality content. We will want to ensure that Ofcom is empowered to achieve what is being asked of it as a robust regulator and, of course, that the legislation is future-proof.

We are pleased to see the case for prominence being updated has been recognised by the Government. Clause 28 is hugely important to the PSBs, extending it to cover services not currently included, such as interfaces on smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks. Given that Ofcom recommended this back in 2019, it is long overdue. This should make PSB content prominent on both linear and on-demand services and make public service content available and easy to find across the full range of television platforms.

We are aware that, in another place, some Members—notably, the chair of the DCMS Select Committee, Caroline Dinenage—made the case for a different wording for “prominence”. They argued that, instead of “appropriate” prominence, it should be “significant”. I am sure that the House will want to probe to ensure that the word “appropriate” is flexible and robust enough to do the job for the PSBs. It might be useful if the Minister could fill out in a little more detail the thinking behind the language used. I am not sure that Sir John Whittingdale’s clarification in the Commons quite did the job.

On assuring quality content for our audiences, we welcome the simpler, streamlined public service remit and believe that the Bill will enable a broader reach of audiences across a wider range of platforms. We will have questions to probe the genres included, or not included, in the remit, ensuring that the right safeguards are in place. We will also want to consider the details of Part 4 on video on demand regulation for both the industry and the audiences who access the services, including the tier model and age ratings.

On future-proofing, we welcome the listed events reforms, which will strengthen the role of public service media within the regime. However, this is one of the key areas where future-proofing the legislation comes into play, on the issue of digital rights for listed events in particular. Attention to digital rights will be necessary to enable UK audiences to come together for our biggest sporting events, whether this is online or through traditional linear broadcast outlets. Future-proofing will also be a key issue when we consider radio provisions in the Bill, including access to on-demand content and access through services other than smart speakers—particularly in cars, where car manufacturers can effectively become the default gatekeepers of radio access.

This Bill was much delayed in the 20 years since the Communications Act 2003. More generally, given the pace of change in the media world, can the Minister say today that the legislation is sufficiently flexible to match the changes and challenges that we can immediately foresee? Perhaps the Minister can assure noble Lords that the Secretary of State will keep under regular review the platforms through which PSB content can be viewed? This will surely be essential, given how technological developments are likely to work alongside shifting markets and audience expectations.

As I made plain at the outset, we are pleased that Channel 4 privatisation has been dropped. The Government have made two changes that materially affect Channel 4. The first is to place a sustainability duty on the company, and the second is the removal of the existing publisher-broadcaster restriction. The first change, relating to the duty, is, I hope, limited to ensuring the channel’s financial security and stability. Perhaps the Minister can say something about that when he comes to wind up. The lifting of the restriction on Channel 4’s ability to create content directly is clearly significant. I noted, as I am sure other noble Lords will have done, the careful response adopted by Channel 4 to this new freedom. The channel, having rightly made the argument about privatisation upsetting the broadcasting eco-structure, will not want to disrupt that same eco-structure through rapid expansion of in-house production, having carefully built up its commissioning role over the past 40 years.

With others, we are considering carefully what might need amending in the Bill. As well as the areas that I have referenced, there a few amendments that we feel are important in addressing possible gaps to the legislation. One that seems particularly important, given concerns about the viewing habits of children and young people, was that relating to a review looking at ensuring that they have access to public service content. With the dominance of smartphones and social media among young people as a means of viewing TV content, this would seem vitally important. We also support having a review within six months of the Bill passing into legislation on whether a Gaelic language service should be given a public service broadcast remit.

I finally come to the Government’s decision to bring forward the repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, relating to the Leveson provisions. In my opinion, it sits rather oddly in a Bill about broadcast media. But we are aware that this measure has manifesto cover from 2019 and we have not sought to remove it. From conversations with key stakeholders and noble Lords, it seems fair to say that the debate in this House will not focus solely on the question of repeal but will instead look at a range of possible amendments. In the Commons, Labour supported an amendment laid by George Eustice MP that would retain an incentive for newspapers to sign up to an approved regulator. This will, I am sure, be part of our conversations going forward. Ensuring access to justice and a free and important press is very much a live and current issue, and I look forward to hearing from noble Lords across the House today on that point.

In conclusion, this Bill is much needed and long overdue. The PSBs need it, the media world needs it, and it is welcome. Our approach will be to carefully listen to the arguments over points of contention. We have no intention of disrupting the architecture of the Bill or its main provisions. If we have an argument with the Government, it is simply this: instead of spending the last four years running down the excellence of our PSBs, they could have better spent that time promoting their strengths internationally and celebrating their role in helping make the UK the arts and culture superpower that we truly should become.