Amendment 67

Part of Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:15 pm ar 13 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.