Media Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:45 pm ar 28 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 4:45, 28 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, the Media Bill is good, but it can be better. That is what I trust we will achieve during its passage here.

We are so fortunate with our PSBs, which form a miraculous ecosystem that lies at the heart of our nation, our common understanding, our daily lives and our conversations. It is not only our unique selling point but the birthplace and cauldron that nurtures the extraordinary talents that we boast in this country. It is no mystery why the streamers have streamed here: tax breaks and talent. Paramount, among others, has spoken out about the importance of PSBs to inward investment. It says: “We have a special place in the UK market as a huge investor each year across film, pay TV, PSB, Channel 5 and streaming. We have always been very clear that PSBs are the cornerstone of the UK content sector and that is what makes it so attractive for inward investment”.

Budgets are being squeezed, and our PSBs are up against a proliferation of streamers with global competitors worldwide with very deep pockets; so, as we welcome the brilliant and differing content and jobs and inward investment that the streamers make, we need to ensure that the pure size and commercial power that the streamers have cannot simply ace them out. British dramas are great exports but are also important to our nation, as we recently saw with “Mr Bates”, but they are so much more. We want to make sure that we can keep making brilliant programmes like that, “Happy Valley” and “Line of Duty”, and that audiences can find them easily and significantly.

The elements of betterment to the Bill are no mystery: prominence, listed events, live coverage clips, fair coverage, Channel 4’s change to remit, genres, smart speakers, unfettered access, content classification, Section 40, video on demand, local radio and local content and accessibility, among others. We and others across this House will undoubtedly lay amendments to test these and many more.

The modernised mission statement for our PSBs replaces the original 14 objectives with four generalised requirements. We are concerned that removing Ofcom’s responsibility to monitor the delivery of content in specific areas of public benefit may see these less commercially viable, but vitally important, areas decline. The current Bill is framed in consumerist, rather than societal, terms. “Inform, educate and entertain” is a long-standing, overarching aim for our PSBs. Ofcom will have a statutory duty to measure delivery of this content if it is in the Bill, not in quantitative terms but overall.

I turn to prominence. How that word has gained prominence in my life in recent days—in fact, I would say it had gained “significant” prominence, not simply “appropriate” prominence. I literally do not understand what the Government have against “significant” rather than “appropriate”. If the PSBs are not there, right at the front of the queue for viewers’ attention, they simply will not get it. So I very much hope that the Government may move on that in due course. “Significant” will give more power and impetus to Ofcom to ensure that UK viewers and listeners can continue to access high-quality programming and journalism from our PSBs in an ever more cluttered media offering. I also could not help but notice that Amazon, in its evidence, prefers “appropriate” to “significant”—which makes me think that “significant” is definitely what we need.

By the mid-2030s, 80% of Brits will get stuff online, and we are concerned that big shopfronts such as Amazon and Google will sell that visibility—will sell their shopfronts and prominence. The Bill has to intervene in that market, because it is clear that these gigantic superpowers may obliterate all before them if left free to roam. While I love Amazon and Netflix—actually, I love all of them; I have far too many subscriptions for the time available to use them—I also love and value our ecosystem of creativity.

Amazon MGM, for example, which is the production and distribution arm, says that it has supported more than 16,000 full-time permanent jobs in 2022 and is creating new facilities at Shepperton. That is all brilliant, its investment goes right across the nations and it is working with film schools; but if we are not careful and we do not protect our PSBs, the cauldron of talent that is nurtured and grown by the BBC and others will be eaten up and will one day disappear. The very golden egg of whatever is in the water that grows our very British talent—I am sorry for those mixed metaphors —will have disappeared.

We are very happy that the Government cancelled their decision to privatise Channel 4, but we are concerned about what the change to empowering it to make its own programmes may do to the diversity and sustainability of the UK’s world-leading independent production sector and the employment and creativity it generates in the nations and regions. To date, Channel 4 says that that will not happen for at least five years, but as a publisher-broadcaster it does not produce its own programmes but commissions them instead every year from more than 300 independent production companies across the UK. Although it has come to rely on a few of the bigger ones it has created, for that investment in start- ups, it is very good that it does not have a list of preferred or approved production companies. That must not be put in jeopardy. It is the cauldron of our creators, and its future is vital in the role it plays in enabling small, new, inventive, adventurous programming. I think Margaret Thatcher had something to do with that.

The Bill makes it clear that listed event primary beneficiaries are terrestrial, and the existing regime makes it harder to hide behind a paywall. The Bill says the same should apply to streamers, but we need to extend that regime further in terms of digital rights, to clips and catch-up. People are increasingly accessing through digital and watch more and more after an event, using clips and catch-up, so these must not be hidden behind a paywall.

Undoubtedly, we will have to address the removal of Section 40, and on this we will find disagreement across the House. For these Benches, it is a bulwark against the overweening power of the press, let alone the inaccuracy and bias that already populates its titles. That power cannot remain untrammelled.

On radio, we need to ensure fairness in the choice of station, not unfair direction by owners of the appliance. There should be no charging of radio stations licensed by Ofcom, and we need to protect against overlaid unauthorised advertising. It is important that we have our own choice of what to listen to, be that national or local, entertainment, news, or other information. As this era of shifting and changing listening and viewing habits marches on, much of it online, we need to safe- guard the irreplaceable part radio plays in our lives. As smart speakers become more and more dominant, we need to ensure that such safeguards are in place.

On the nations and regions, local content is so important. We must ensure that appropriate and relevant material, not just local news, can reach local areas. We need diverse voices, and Welsh language and Gaelic broadcasting.

On inclusion, we need to be aware that millions still rely on free-to-air, but it is guaranteed only up to 2034. No long-term protections are in place and loss of these services would hit the most vulnerable, who are already disadvantaged by digital exclusion in so many ways. TV is a mainstay of the old, those without family and those who are lonely, as well as lower-income households, people living with disabilities and those in rural areas. Clear safeguards in law are needed.

Before I finish, I will say a little about Ofcom. It is growing and growing like Topsy, so I trust it will have the wherewithal not only to manage but excel at its task, employing the best for what will be a heavy responsibility going forward. Moreover, it is vital that dispute resolution is clear and attainable in the Bill. Ofcom needs to be empowered and powerful, and any issues need to be dealt with swiftly and strongly. To date, this has not been a noticeable feature of Ofcom, but it needs to be as it gets more and more responsibility.

We have something very special in this country. It is always difficult to put it into words, but it is part of our national identity; our cohesion; our unique selling point. We need this Bill to guard against any loss of that identity, or any damage to the creative furnace that is so important to our nation’s future. I and my colleagues look forward to working on the Bill and making it better than ever.