Amendment 67

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:00 pm ar 13 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Stowell of Beeston:

Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston

67: After Clause 146, insert the following new Clause—“Foreign power acquisition of news media organisations(1) A foreign power (as defined in section 32 of the National Security Act 2023) may not acquire a news media organisation or publisher of news in any form ("a publisher") where the publisher's primary place of business is in the United Kingdom, unless the conditions in subsections (2) to (4) are met.(2) Investigations by the CMA under sections 44 and 45 of the EA 2002 and by OFCOM under section 44A of the EA 2002 have been completed.(3) The Secretary of State has made and published their decision under section 54 of the EA 2002 stating that there are no competition-related or consumer-related concerns.(4) Where the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) are met, the Secretary of State must by regulations approve the acquisition.(5) Regulations under subsection (4) are subject to the affirmative procedure.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would prevent the acquisition of a UK news media organisation by a foreign power without the approval of both Houses of Parliament, where competition or consumer-related concerns have been raised.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I will also speak to the consequential Amendment 158 in my name. I thank noble Lords who have signed my amendment: my noble friend Lord Forsyth and the noble Lords, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Lord Anderson of Ipswich. I am grateful to them all for their support and expertise, which have been invaluable in getting us to this point. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is unable to be in the Chamber today because of other responsibilities overseas, but he has asked me to restate his support.

I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister and Julia Lopez, his ministerial colleague in the other place, for their constructive and generous engagement with me on this matter over the past week. I have consciously not been in contact with the Secretary of State, Lucy Frazer, mindful of her current quasi-judicial responsibilities. I will return in a moment to what action the Government might take.

I am sure your Lordships agree that freedom of the press is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Freedom of the press means freedom from government: the freedom of the media to scrutinise and hold to account those of us in Parliament on behalf of the electorate, who get to choose who governs and every Government’s fate. Upholding that unbroken principle, which we have protected for centuries, is what has prevented any UK Government owning or controlling the press. It is surely inconceivable, then, that we would sanction a foreign Government or state power to do what no UK Government have ever done or would ever do.

I want to be clear that I have no problem with foreign businesses or individuals owning UK media organisations. Today’s foreign UK media owners are a large reason why we have a thriving media environment that is financially independent of government, and I recognise the importance and value to our economy of foreign inward investment to a range of different sectors. The stark difference between foreign businesses and foreign Governments is that if the latter were allowed to own our news media, it would raise big questions about foreign policy, editorial independence and the relationship between an outlet’s owners and its coverage.

We cannot ignore that public trust in news, Parliament and the political class has fallen significantly in recent years, and allowing foreign Governments to own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation would damage public confidence in all of us yet further if it was allowed to happen. Only yesterday, Lord Ashcroft published a poll showing that two-thirds of the British public do not support foreign government ownership of UK media. The same poll showed that this is not a partisan matter, with a similar percentage of voters who support all the major UK parties sharing the same view. The British people might not always love the British media and all that it does, but the principle of press freedom certainly matters to them. This principle is in jeopardy because of the proposed takeover of the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator magazine by RedBird IMI, a fund that is 75% backed by the UAE.

The action taken to date by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the instructions she has issued to Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the takeover are very welcome and demonstrate that the Government recognise the well-evidenced concerns about the potential for editorial influence and the risk of censorship by the UAE Government. My concern, which I know that many noble Lords and Members of the other place share, is not just about the potential acquisition of those important newspaper titles. This situation has exposed that in law there is nothing that clearly prohibits the acquisition of a UK news organisation by a foreign power or organisations under significant foreign government control. So although we are relying on the Culture Secretary to reach the right decision and uphold our press freedom, nothing in the current legal framework provides certainty that she can and will do so. This is particularly worrying at a time when some parts of the UK news media face significant economic challenges.

My amendment seeks to close that gap in the law. In simple terms, my amendment would prevent the acquisition of a UK news media organisation by a foreign Government or power without the explicit approval of Parliament. If passed, it would provide an additional and vital barrier of protection for press freedom in this country. The consequential Amendment 158 would ensure that the proposed new clause in Amendment 67 would take effect immediately that the Bill receives Royal Assent.

As I said, my noble friend the Minister and Julia Lopez, the excellent Media Minister, have devoted significant time for discussions with me since I tabled my amendment. I do not doubt their commitment to finding a way to provide the legal certainty that we are currently lacking, and I know that they and officials have been working very hard on this over the past week or so.

From our most recent discussions, I expect my noble friend the Minister to set out an alternative solution when he responds to this debate. I will listen carefully to what he has to say. I am not wedded to the detail of my amendment or the procedure that it sets out, and I will be pleased if the Government propose something that is better and tighter than what I have been able to bring forward. The only question for me is whether the Government’s way forward meets a clear and simple objective: preventing a foreign Government representative or foreign state-controlled entity owning or controlling our news media.

I will not pre-empt what my noble friend might say, nor how I might respond to what he says. However, to be clear, I will have no hesitation in pushing my amendment to a vote if necessary. But I think we all recognise the gravity of the matter before us—the Government included—and I am confident, from the reaction and strong support I have received from noble Lords around the House and from Members of another place, that there is a collective desire to meet that simple objective. Indeed, we must meet it, because if we do not, the freedom of our press is at stake. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Llafur

My Lords, I added my name to this amendment, and I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for the energy and effectiveness of her campaign. Just before the debate started, my mobile phone produced a Sky News newsflash, which said that, at 4 pm, the Government will make a decision to accept the basis of the noble Baroness’s amendment. That is a nice piece of news to get just before you stand up to speak.

I was delighted to join the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Forsyth, in adding my name to this. Unusually, we are on the same side of the argument, although at Question Time the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, threw out some remarks that other Members of the House will not have recognised but which were designed as an insult to previous positions I have taken on other issues.

Yesterday, I was in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, congratulating it on 25 years since its entry into the NATO alliance. I made the point, as many people at the conference did, that 25 years ago the Czech Republic joined NATO, having overthrown the communist system and regained freedom after all the years in serfdom to the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. The point was made that freedom is not an abstract concept but something that is very clear and precise, and it includes free speech and a free press. That is why I believe that a very significant principle is involved at this point.

As the noble Baroness said, there is no provision in the legal framework of this country at the moment to prevent a foreign Government gaining control or ownership of our media outlets. To the vast majority of the public, that would seem to be outrageous. As Lord Ashcroft’s poll showed, the fact is that a large majority of the population do not agree with the idea of a foreign Government owning our media outlets. That should come as no surprise to anybody in this House or in the other place; it seems almost self-evident. Yet we do not have that legal provision, and we should.

This is not simply about the Daily Telegraph or the Spectator magazine, but what that case has done is illustrate the vulnerability that we have, in this modern world, to the way in which foreign Governments might seek to impose their views and attitudes on the British public. I do not intend, given that Sky News has already told me that the Government are giving in, to make a huge issue of this here. As the noble Baroness said, I will listen with great interest to what the Minister says and what the department has told Sky News in advance; if that is right, we will all be satisfied, and the United Kingdom will be a safer place as a consequence.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Financial Services Regulation Committee, Chair, Financial Services Regulation Committee 4:15, 13 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on her skill and thank the splendid, clever people in our Public Bill Office who enabled her to find a way through this legislation to have an amendment that is in scope—because, for a very long time, we thought that would not be possible. I tried with the Media Bill, and the best I could come up with was a regret Motion on the Second Reading that showed there was widespread support. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, deserves considerable credit for making that navigation and getting us to the point where, in her courteous way—she is much more diplomatic than me—she gives the Government an opportunity to do the right thing and support an amendment to this Bill to protect the freedom of the press in our country and, with that, the very foundations of our democracy.

I will say something about the Telegraph bid made by this curious organisation called RedBird IMI—it is a very odd bird indeed. We are told that Sheikh Mansour, the vice-president and Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, is acting in a purely private capacity by those who wish to advance this so-called investment. Now I am a banker, but I do not really understand how you can have an investment strategy that involves paying multiples of the value of the asset and, in carrying out the bid, briefing the press to the effect that you would be prepared to have a minority interest and, presumably, not have a vote—that strikes me as an odd investment strategy indeed.

What it is, is what it is: an influence strategy. The payment of a rich price is about getting influence through the medium of the Telegraph and the Spectator magazine—it is not a commercial issue. Money talks, of course, and ownership matters. One of the very few things that I disagreed with Mrs Thatcher on was that she tended to the view that ownership did not matter. Ownership does matter, and the freedom of our press should never be up for sale.

I said in an earlier debate that he who pays the piper calls the tune—but this is not a melody. The very idea of an autocratic state with a poor record on human rights owning or holding any influence in a major British daily newspaper is utterly surreal: a country that hosts Putin, greets him as dear friend and purchases oil as he circumvents sanctions and conducts his blood-soaked regime and brutal, illegal war in Ukraine; a country whose laws ban any direct criticism of their rulers through the Government’s national media council, where citizen journalists and bloggers are targeted for criticising the regime and accused of defamation, insulting the state and posting false information with the aim of damaging the country’s reputation; a country that puts journalists in jail, deports critics and closes down any criticism; a country that is bottom of the class in international freedom tables; a country where, according to Amnesty International, at least 26 Emirati prisoners remain behind bars because of their peaceful political criticism.

The bidders at IMI promise editorial independence, just as they did in the case of CNN Business Arabic. According to the Times report of 12 January, Sultan Al Jaber, chairman of IMI, put pressure on CNN Business Arabic to avoid negative news about the UAE, despite promises to preserve journalists’ editorial independence. The Times reported that the editor-in-chief was forced out within months of his appointment for refusing to submit to requests from Al Jaber for positive coverage. Al Jaber was previously head of the UAE’s censorship agency, so had much experience in this area.

I hope I have convinced the House—I do not think I need to try very hard—that this bird cannot fly, but it is not just about this particular bird, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said. No insult was intended earlier—I was just pulling his leg. There is a principle here. Foreign Governments should be nowhere near the ownership of newspapers and magazines. In fairness to the Government, no one could have predicted how this utterly bizarre bid would come to pass. I know of no democratic country that would allow a foreign state to take ownership of key national newspapers. I now regret my regret amendment. Perhaps it was a little unfair to criticise the Government for not including measures in the Media Bill and drawing the Long Title so tightly that it was impossible to amend the Bill in that respect. The debates in this House showed universal opposition. The poll by Lord Ashcroft, which has been mentioned, reflects that in the country.

This amendment may not be perfect. It is an old trick of Sir Humphrey to say, “Well, I accept the amendment in principle but unfortunately the drafting is not quite right”. From my experience of talking to Minister Lopez and from the work done by my noble friend Lady Stowell, I believe the Government are working sincerely to try to find a way of having an amendment that will produce what I believe everyone in the House would like to see. They should continue to work with my noble friend and the other sponsors to ensure that the Bill leaves this House amended. Nothing less than a complete ban on foreign Governments having any role in the governance, ownership or financing of our media is acceptable. It is, as I have said before, a no-brainer.

Photo of Lord Moore of Etchingham Lord Moore of Etchingham Non-affiliated

My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my entry in the register. I have been on the staff of the Telegraph Media Group since 1979, so this interest bulks large in my mind; I had to confess it at once. I am very grateful for everything that has been said and to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for moving this amendment. I am also very pleased that this has been a cross-party affair coming from all sides of the House.

My only regret so far is that the Government were inclined to regard this as a technical matter that had to be looked at in terms of rules. It is important to look at the rules, which DCMS is doing, but it is not really about that. As has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and all other speakers, this is a very important matter of principle. The delay involved has been very difficult for newspapers in general, and particularly for my own and for the Spectator, because while you do not know what will happen you cannot really get on with doing your journalism. That tends to erode things if you are not careful, so it is very important that we have got to the heart of it.

I endorse absolutely everything that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said about the Abu Dhabi bid, but I am quite glad that I do not have to say it myself, because if we had had such a rule and such clarity from the start, people would not have had to get into this issue of saying rather difficult truths about many regimes across the world. We would simply have been able to say, “No, sorry, the rule is the rule, and that’s that”. I hope we can learn something from all that.

I have seen the leak, if that is the right word, so I have a rough idea about what we might hear later. I want to make two important points. One is that I hope the Spectator, and magazines like it, will be properly included in any decisions, because, as I understand the rules at present, they refer to national newspapers and not automatically to national news magazines, and I think precisely the same point should apply.

There is room for possible problems about minority ownership. It is possible, in the way that ownership works in companies, that an ownership of less than 50% can amount to a controlling interest; that can be done in a covert way or sometimes in an open way. If it were the case that, for example, RedBird IMI took a minority stake, that would be better than a majority stake but would not automatically solve the problem. I hope the Government will address that.

At the Daily Telegraph we have always been proud advocates and practitioners of a free press, but we have not particularly enjoyed having to advocate it quite so hard and so repeatedly to get the message across. I am glad to sense that the message has got across, and I am grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the House. I hope we can now move forward with due expedition.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise very briefly for two reasons. First, I offer Green support to the direction in which we are heading and join in the congratulations for the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on all the work she has done here.

Before I begin the second point, I declare my historical interest as a former editor of the Guardian Weekly and a former employee of the Times. I will refer to the report Who Owns the UK Media?, published last year by the Media Reform Coalition at Goldsmiths. I very much agree with what the noble Baroness said about the importance of the principle of press freedom, and with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, about the free press as a foundation of our democracy, and that ownership matters. But I urge all noble Lords who take part in this Report to consider how much diversity of media ownership matters.

As it says in that report, three UK publishers—DMG Media, News UK and Reach—control 90% of the print reach in the UK and 40% of the online reach. The report’s authors said there was an “urgent need for reform”, and urged Ofcom, Parliament and the Government to take action to address diversity of media ownership. If DMG Media were to buy the Telegraph Media Group, its print share would rise from 42% to 47%.

I very much welcome what I think we are about to hear and all the work that has gone into this, but I urge noble Lords to consider the much more work that needs to be done to achieve the diversity of voices that is so crucial to the strength of our democracy.

Photo of Baroness Fleet Baroness Fleet Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 67, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and I congratulate her on all the hard work she has done to get to this point.

I have not spoken previously on the Bill, but I specifically want to speak today as a passionate supporter of a free press and freedom of speech. As a former deputy editor of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and the editor for seven years of the London Evening Standard, I know that anyone who buys a newspaper wants to influence society, politicians and government. All proprietors interfere. Many editors have been forced to resign because of that interference. I departed from the Telegraph with Max Hastings because the owner—the noble Lord, Lord Black—disagreed with the editor’s support for Europe. After I left the Standard, the paper became a promotion vehicle for the new owner, the noble Lord, Lord Lebedev, and his personal interests. The notion that a Government, or someone appointed by a Government, buys a newspaper other than to directly influence the newspaper is fanciful.

Turning to the Telegraph, we should acknowledge that, since 7 October, that newspaper has boldly championed the right of Israel to defend itself against Islamic terrorism. Importantly, every week the Telegraph has criticised the pro-Palestinian parades through London for their anti-Semitism. The idea that an Arab owner—any Arab owner—of the Telegraph or any other newspaper would allow its editor to support Israel and criticise pro-Palestinian anti-Semites is an absurd notion.

I go even further: perhaps one reason why a foreign Government would want to buy an important newspaper such as the Telegraph would be to promote an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian point of view. Once that foreign Government owned the newspaper, there would nothing anyone could do to prevent their interference. We want a free press, not a major newspaper controlled by an undemocratic Arab state.

It is now suggested that, to avoid a blanket ban on their purchase, the Abu Dhabi Government would be content with a minority stake. Allowing that would also endanger the Telegraph. There would be nothing to prevent the rich minority shareholder offering an extremely tempting fortune to a co-shareholder for their stake. That would give Abu Dhabi a majority interest—just what the proposed amendment seeks to avoid.

Finally, I turn to News International. I admire Rupert Murdoch, but I must tell the House that, having been one of the independent members of the Times supervisory board for nine years—a similar structure to that proposed by the bidders for the Telegraph—we had no real power. If we do not pass this amendment, we will send out a signal that if, after Murdoch’s death perhaps, News International is put up for sale, any foreign Government —perhaps Qatar or even Russia—would then be welcome to buy another chunk of our newspapers. We must protect our newspapers from that threat.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall Ceidwadwyr 4:30, 13 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, a number of principles have been spoken about. I believe firmly in the principle that no Government, British or foreign, should be allowed to own a UK media outlet. When my noble friend Lady Stowell asked me whether I would support her amendment I initially declined, because I told her it did not go far enough. I apologise for that, because, as my noble friend said, the UK Government do not own any media outlet; why, therefore, should any foreign Government be allowed to do so?

We should also be absolutely clear that this is not anti-foreigner sentiment. I and, I am sure, many other noble Lords have no objection to foreign private companies owning UK news media outlets. Indeed, in my years in the European Parliament we used to refer to the Financial Times as the in-house paper of the European Commission, only to find that it was owned by a Japanese company.

There are clearly some tricky issues here in drafting the relevant law that the clever lawyers will have to navigate. For example, it is well known that Chinese non-state-owned enterprises often have strong links to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, some China analysts claim that there is little difference between the Chinese Government’s influence over state-owned and non-state-owned companies, so were a non-state-owned Chinese company to bid for a UK media outlet there would also be a number of questions. That is possibly a debate for another day.

In short, like many noble Lords, I am against any government ownership of UK media organisations, whether it be the UK Government or a foreign Government. For these reasons, I support Amendments 67 and 158 in the name of my noble friend Lady Stowell.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, despite the shortness of this debate, we have had some very fine and inspiring speeches. We on these Benches wholly support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. Indeed, like the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, I find it extraordinary that we do not have this already on the statute book. Given the importance of pluralism and freedom of speech in our media, the thought of foreign Governments impacting on our media in the way that is currently threatened seems quite extraordinary.

My main purpose is to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. When he moved his regret amendment, he talked about the ownership by the UAE of a UK quality newspaper. I have spent the last 10 years campaigning for the release of Ryan Cornelius from a Dubai jail. He was unjustly imprisoned on trumped-up fraud charges, and his sentence was arbitrarily extended by 20 years in 2018, just as he was due to be released. He now faces the prospect of many more years in jail. I am all too aware of the reality that lies behind the pleasant-looking tourist Dubai. Parliament should definitely have its say before a UK newspaper falls into the hands of such a Government. All this is a result of the activities of a member of the royal court of Dubai, so it very close to home in the UAE. Not only do we as a party on these Benches wholly support this amendment, but I personally feel very strongly about the need for it.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I think the whole House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for the way in which she set out the arguments behind her amendment, and for the clarity, force and power of her voice in putting those arguments forward. We are also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for the way in which he has argued his case—not once, but twice, and several other times too, when he has been given the opportunity; I always enjoy his interventions. I am enormously grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, for bringing breaking news to your Lordships’ House.

It might seem slightly ironic to some that we on the Labour Benches are trying to come to the rescue of the Daily Telegraph, but there is a much more important principle at stake here. It is an obvious place to start but let me begin with first principles: Labour believes in a free and fair press without state interference. We also believe in the accurate presentation of news and in freedom of expression, which is particularly important in the context of RedBird’s attempted takeover. Our view on this matter is not shaped just by the Telegraph Media Group takeover proposal currently being considered by the Secretary of State; we would have similar concerns if other titles were subject to bids from other states. When the Minister explains to the House the Government’s intention, can he clarify the position, too, of not just newspapers but other publications? That is not to say that we do not have real concerns about the proposed sale of the Telegraph Media Group. We very much welcomed the Secretary of State initiating the investigations by the regulators. Now that their reports have been submitted, we hope that a decision will be taken in a timely way and as soon as possible, and in a way that is consistent with the quasi-judicial nature of the process.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not to say that we oppose foreign investment in this country; we believe that inward investment in our economy is vital. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, spoke eloquently on that point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Kamall. However, foreign ownership of UK media organisations raises broader questions around the accurate presentation of news and, in certain cases, the free expression of opinion. Both of these, as many noble Lords have said, are vital to the long-term health of the print media sector and, more importantly, to our democracy.

I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness’s introduction and the other speeches. We have to give them all credit for the way in which they addressed the issue. I listened particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, because of his expertise, and his former role and continuing interest in security matters. While I am giving out thanks, I also thank the Minister, who helpfully found the time to meet me and my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch this afternoon to discuss this important issue.

As we have seen with other legislation, most progress is often made when groups from across your Lordships’ House have open, frank discussions and then work together to agree solutions. I understand that for various reasons the text of Amendment 67 is not necessarily what all its supporters would have wanted. For that reason, and for a number of others that I will set out, we are not convinced that it presents the right response to this serious matter. Our view is that a free and fair press should be without state interference, which means without undue influence from our own state as well as others.

It is correct that the Secretary of State should take an interest in cases which raise concern on competition and plurality grounds, but her responsibilities are rightly constrained by legislation, and her ability to comment is limited by the quasi-judicial role she is playing. Where security concerns may arise, the Secretary of State will no doubt receive confidential briefings on the potential implications of different outcomes. In our view, that process must be allowed to play out. That the CMA and Ofcom have reported to the Secretary of State this week points to the well-established merger regime that has been in place in this country for some time. As part of their investigations, those independent regulators draw on expert advice and are able to obtain appropriately handled confidential information, including material that may be highly commercially sensitive. On the basis of all that information, they may then come to a judgment regarding the suitability of a takeover proposal and advise the Secretary of State accordingly. Parliament has empowered the Secretary of State and those regulators. In our view, that is an appropriate level of state interest in sensitive matters.

Amendment 67 proposes that once the regulators have carried out their work and the Secretary of State has come to a decision, it should be for Parliament to approve that decision. While we generally support parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive and their decisions, we are not convinced that the mechanism envisaged by the amendment is suitable in the light of the sensitive security and commercial information that would have to be shared to inform debate and determine the outcome of votes in both Houses.

My impression from earlier discussions with the Minister and his colleagues in other departments is that a better approach would be for the Government to acknowledge the strength of feeling in this House and commit to bringing back their own text at Third Reading. If the Minister is able to make that commitment, I hope that colleagues on all Benches will be minded to accept that offer and work with Ministers, as we will offer to do, in the coming weeks to find a satisfactory outcome.

We have enormous sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on this issue. We do not feel able to support her proposition in the form it is with us today. We know it has been brought forward with the very best of intentions, intentions we support, and because we share those, we urge the Minister to respond positively to finding a way forward over the next few weeks.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak on this Bill for the first time, even if it is some 43 minute later than advertised by some of our free media outlets. It touches on debates we have already had in connection with the Media Bill.

His Majesty’s Government firmly believe in a free media and a free press. It is the bedrock of our democracy and an essential safeguard which ensures accountability and effective government. I know that noble Lords share that firm belief. We heard it strongly again today, not least from my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, whom I thank for her work in reflecting these important principles through her scrutiny of this Bill, the Media Bill and others.

Media freedom depends on having a plurality of media through which the public can access a wide range of accurate, high-quality news, views and information. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has championed press and media freedom from her very first moment at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. She has been clear about its importance and has made it a personal priority.

As my honourable friend Julia Lopez, the Minister for Media, Tourism and the Creative Industries, has also said, the purchase of UK news organisations by foreign states runs the risk of eroding trust in those important organisations. All foreign states have their own interests, quite understandably, and those may or may not be compatible with UK interests or our values. I am happy to tell your Lordships today that His Majesty’s Government are committed to tabling an amendment to the Bill at Third Reading preventing foreign state ownership of newspapers.

As I have explained in our other recent debates, our existing legal framework—the Enterprise Act 2002 and the National Security and Investment Act 2021—already allows Ministers to scrutinise and, if appropriate, prevent or block media mergers on the basis of public interest considerations, such as the need for freedom of expression and the accurate presentation of the news, and of national security issues. These regimes, as set out by Parliament, therefore implicitly allow Ministers to come to a judgment on media mergers that involve foreign state ownership and influence. However, we agree with the views that have been expressed in Parliament by my noble friend and others that there is scope to provide greater clarity, so we are now bringing forward a comprehensive and clear plan to make this explicit in the legislation.

As noble Lords have said, newspapers and news magazines play a unique role in contributing to the health of our democracy by providing accurate news and information, helping to shape opinions and contributing to political debate. Recent measures considered by your Lordships’ House, such as the National Security and Investment Act 2021 and the National Security Act 2023, have sought to respond to foreign state interference. It is appropriate that we take the concerns that have been raised by my noble friends and others to put this beyond doubt.

The approach outlined in my noble friend Lady Stowell’s Amendment 67 is one approach but, as drafted, and as she knows, it presents some legal and operational challenges. Among other things, the role that it proposes for Parliament would set an unhelpful precedent for other quasi-judicial regimes in terms of the distinct roles of government and Parliament, and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, set out that distinction very helpfully in his contribution. For that reason, we are unable to accept my noble friend’s amendment or her Amendment 158, which is consequential to it.

Instead, I am happy to undertake to my noble friend and to your Lordships’ House—in renewing my thanks to her for her engagement on this matter over recent days—that the Government will table an amendment at Third Reading to address these important issues clearly and comprehensively. We will amend the media merger regime explicitly to rule out newspaper and periodical news magazine mergers involving ownership, influence or control by foreign states.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and others asked about periodical news magazines. To pick up the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, and as he may know—the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, may not be as avid a reader of the “Spectator’s Notes” column as I am, but in that the noble Lord, Lord Moore, fights a sometimes losing battle to refer to the Spectator as a newspaper—under the terms of the Enterprise Act 2002, the Spectator is not a newspaper as defined in statute, but the provisions that we will bring forward will cover periodical news magazines, which include organs such as that.

Under the new measures, the Secretary of State would be obliged to refer media merger cases to the Competition and Markets Authority through a new foreign state intervention notice where she has reasonable grounds to believe that a merger involving a UK newspaper or magazine has given or would give a foreign state—or a body connected to a foreign state—ownership, influence or control. The Competition and Markets Authority will be obliged to investigate the possible merger and, if it concludes that the merger has resulted or would result in foreign state ownership, influence or control over a newspaper enterprise, the Secretary of State will be required by statute to make an order blocking or unwinding the merger.

We intend to expand on the current definition of “foreign powers” used in the National Security Act 2023 to ensure a broad definition that also covers officers of foreign Governments acting in a private capacity and investing their private wealth. This expanded definition is the one that the CMA would apply in its investigation.

The regime will work in parallel with the existing public interest regime and is without prejudice to the Secretary of State’s ability to issue a public interest intervention notice under the current rules. These changes will take the form of amendments in primary legislation to the Enterprise Act 2002, and we intend that the changes should take immediate effect upon Royal Assent.

As noble Lords know, the Secretary of State is currently considering a live merger case under the Enterprise Act regime on which I cannot comment further today. With regard to any live case, if it is still ongoing when the changes come into effect, the Secretary of State will continue to follow the process set out in the existing regime and will also apply the new measures that will be set out in the government amendments.

I should note that the Government remain committed to encouraging and supporting investment into the United Kingdom and recognise that investors deploying capital into this country rely on the predictability and consistency of our regulatory regime. The UK remains one of the most open economies in the world, which is key for the prosperity and future growth of our nation. Our focus here is not on foreign investment in the UK media sector in general; this new regime is targeted and will apply only to foreign states, foreign state bodies and connected individuals, and only to newspapers and news magazines.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Financial Services Regulation Committee, Chair, Financial Services Regulation Committee 4:45, 13 Mawrth 2024

I am very grateful for what my noble friend has said. Could he clarify the position on minority stakeholders? He used the word influence. Would that mean having a small number of shares?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, in order to help, can we be absolutely clear that this covers minority ownership and control? We need clarity on that. The noble Lord, Lord Moore, made that point. It would help the House for the avoidance of doubt.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

The noble Lords have intervened at a helpful point, because I was about to outline that we want to ensure that the new measures do not have undesired effects on wider foreign business investment in the UK media, or on purely passive investments made by established investment funds.

In the amendment we will bring forward at Third Reading, it will be necessary to take a power to make secondary legislation to set out two points clearly: first, what limited types of established investment funds we mean, which could be split out of the general prohibition on foreign state ownership provided for by this regime; secondly, the very low threshold up to which they may be permitted to invest, which we intend to be considerably lower than the current thresholds for material influence in the Enterprise Act.

As we bring this forward ahead of Third Reading, we would be very happy to discuss the drafting with noble Lords before it is tabled so that we can discuss the detail. We will set that out in the provisions at Third Reading.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Ceidwadwyr

I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend but, as he knows, I am interested in the question of media enterprises more generally. Is he intending that the amendment to be brought forward will relate only to newspapers, and therefore will not touch upon broadcasters, as they will be excluded? I am not sure I understand why the presentation of news by broadcasters is to be treated differently from the presentation of news by newspapers.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

The provisions we will bring forward at Third Reading will relate to newspapers and periodical news magazines, as I have set out. It will not cover television and radio broadcasters at this time, but that is something we will continue to consider. We have already been considering it as part of our broader work on the media mergers regime. That work will continue. I am happy to speak with my noble friend Lord Lansley and others about it.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

Could the noble Lord go through again what will happen to an existing merger, which is subject to existing procedure? He seemed to be saying that, as soon the new provision comes in when the Bill passes, it will be subject to the new procedure as well as the old. Is that what he was saying, and how will that work?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

That is what I was saying, but it depends on when the Bill gets Royal Assent. That is in the hands of noble Lords and not just the Government. If any live case is still ongoing at the time of Royal Assent—we intend for the new provisions to come into effect at Royal Assent—then the Secretary of State will obviously follow the provisions as set out in other Acts of Parliament as decided by Parliament previously, and follow the law as enacted after Royal Assent.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I have a second question. I am assuming that internet digital news media—not a newspaper—will not be covered by these provisions.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

No. I am grateful that we have separated the debate on the noble Lord’s previous amendment from this so that I can respond directly to the amendment brought by my noble friend Lady Stowell. I am grateful for his understanding of that.

The Government are focused on the reforms to media ownership rules, which were suggested in Ofcom’s 2021 review. It did not recommend that online inter- mediaries, including social media platforms, search and video/audio-on-demand services should fall in scope of that. I heard what the noble Lord said about having this debate in the Media Bill, and I look forward to doing so.

The secondary legislation provisions that I have outlined will be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament. Until such time as those regulations are laid and approved by Parliament, the whole regime applies to everybody caught by the general foreign state prohibition.

We have always believed that the trustworthiness of our news and the lack of government interference in it, whether domestic or foreign, is of paramount importance, which is why we are setting out today our plan to make that more explicit in the regulatory regime that exists. As my noble friend Lady Stowell is aware, work is already under way to update the media mergers regime more broadly, and I touched on that in my responses to noble Lords. We will continue to take that work forward. I hope that, on that basis, my noble friend is able to withdraw her amendment today. With renewed thanks to her and a renewed commitment to work with those who have supported her, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today.

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, could the Minister clarify whether the proposed restrictions apply not only to print and broadcast media but to digital media?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken for their support and for the powerful speeches that they have given, and I am very grateful to my noble friend for his clear and comprehensive explanation of the Government’s position, and their firm intention to bring back an amendment at Third Reading to address that simple objective that I outlined at the start of this debate.

Because my noble friend covered such a lot of ground and this is quite complex stuff, for the benefit of other noble Lords and anyone else following this debate, I shall play it back at him a little bit, perhaps in plainer English, if I may—although noble Lords must forgive me if some of it is not as plain as it would be if I was speaking outside the House.

What we have heard is that the Government will bring forward an amendment at Third Reading that will expand the definition of foreign power beyond that in the National Security Act to include individuals who might not otherwise be adequately captured. That is something that has been of particular interest and concern to some of the legal noble Lords who have been following and commenting on my amendment. The amendment will expand the definition of “newspaper” in the Enterprise Act to include news magazines explicitly. The amendment will give the Secretary of State a new power to issue a foreign state intervention notice if she is notified or becomes aware at any time of possible foreign state involvement to own, control or influence a newspaper or news magazine. Once her order is issued, the CMA must investigate and, if it establishes that it is a foreign state, as newly defined, any investment or takeover will be blocked—or, if the investment has already happened, the Secretary of State will have the power to unwind that investment. All that will come into force once the Bill gets Royal Assent, and it will apply to any live regulatory case alongside the existing procedure that the Secretary of State is following.

In addition, at Third Reading, the Government will bring forward an amendment to create secondary legislation, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Those regulations will define what kind of indirect foreign state entity might be allowed to make a passive investment, such as a sovereign wealth fund of a democratic state, and include a very low threshold below which such an entity could invest. The purpose of those regulations will be to preserve the opportunity of legitimate foreign investment in news media. For example—and I think that it helps to get an example to understand what we are talking about here—it has been pointed out to me that the Norwegian state investment fund has single digit investments in News Corp, Reach, which is also known as the Mirror Group, Paramount Global, which owns Channel 5, and Comcast, which owns Sky.

To me, what my noble friend has outlined today, on my simple interpretation of it, makes sense. I am very grateful to the Minister for emphasising the very low-level investment that the Government are considering for the secondary legislation that will come forward, but the precise percentage will matter. I know that he will not be able to commit now to bringing forward the regulations in draft at Third Reading, because there is a lot of work for officials to do between now and then, but I hope that he can commit to doing as much as he can at Third Reading to provide the detail that we will need to be properly satisfied that what then follows will meet all our concerns.

Overall, I congratulate my noble friend and the Media Minister, Julia Lopez, on bringing forward such a comprehensive proposal. On the basis of what my noble friend has committed to today, I will withdraw my amendment. Of course, as he knows, I reserve the right to retable it at Third Reading and to divide the House then if, for whatever reason, what has been promised is not delivered, but my priority now—I mean this most sincerely—is to work with the Minister to ensure the adequacy of the amendments that come forward at Third Reading. My noble friend Lord Forsyth has already asked that I and my co-sponsors be consulted. I understand from what my noble friend said in response that he is agreeable to that. I am sure that noble Lords will want the opportunity to make sure that, at Third Reading, we are able to agree to what is brought forward and to discharge the Bill back to the Commons for their consideration. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 67 withdrawn.

Clause 148: Relevant infringements