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 Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 4:30, 13 Mawrth 2024

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.