Amendment 67

Part of 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

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 4:00, 13 Mawrth 2024

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.