Amendment 67

Part of Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:30 pm ar 13 Mawrth 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) 4:30, 13 Mawrth 2024

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.