News Broadcasting: Regulation - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords am 2:29 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 2:29, 14 Mawrth 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the regulation of news broadcasting companies.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, one of the most satisfying experiences during my time in the Lords was to serve, in 2002, on the joint pre-legislative scrutiny committee prior to the 2003 Communications Act, chaired by the now retired and much missed Lord Puttnam. One lesson which came from that experience is that communications Bills do not come along that often, so it is important that we get things right, because correcting a mistake is not always that easy.

The 2003 Act created Ofcom as the regulator of the broadcast media. I remember at the time some people said that Murdoch’s lawyers would have Ofcom for breakfast. They did not and, in the main, Ofcom has proved an effective regulator, although, as I will explain later, I have some real concerns about how Ofcom has recently interpreted the mandate given it by Parliament.

We are about to give Ofcom some widespread discretionary powers. In doing so, it is important that the marching orders Parliament gives are clear and precise. For example, Ofcom must understand that for 100 years, under successive Administrations, Parliament has intentionally distorted the market to ensure that we have quality and choice in our broadcasting ecology.

Initially, that was done by putting broadcasting in the hands of a public corporation, protected by royal charter and guided by Lord Reith’s original mission statement to inform, educate and entertain. Since its early days, the BBC has set the gold standard for impartiality and accuracy.

Parliament made it clear, when plans were being drawn up for commercial channels in the early 1950s, that it expected exactly the same standard from the BBC’s new competitors, not least in their provision of news. So, when ITV opened its doors in 1955 and then Channel 4 followed in 1982, they were subject to exactly the same regime as the publicly funded BBC. As a result, ITN has gone toe-to-toe with the BBC in the quality and range of its reporting.

Then, in 1989, along came Rupert Murdoch with his satellite TV stations, including Sky News, beamed directly into our homes, and we wondered how long it would be before Britain had its own version of an opinionated news channels. We need not have worried; our rules on impartiality and accuracy, robustly overseen by the Independent Television Commission from 1990, made sure that Sky News was insulated from undue ownership pressures and continued the legacy of high-quality, independent television news that continues to this day under its new ownership. In perhaps the greatest tribute to the strength of our regulatory system, Murdoch once described Sky News as “BBC lite”—I do not think he meant it as a compliment.

When the broadcasting regime was overhauled in 2003, Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act cemented our commitment to impartiality in broadcasting by placing a statutory obligation on the regulator to ensure that due impartiality is preserved when dealing with

“matters of political or industrial controversy; and … matters relating to current public policy”.

Ofcom interprets its statutory duty through its Broadcasting Code. The code is clear that:

“Views and facts must not be misrepresented”.

Ofcom rightly affords licensees some flexibility by emphasising the notion of “due impartiality”, which allows for some discretion. It is on that basis that it has been able to license news channels with different perspectives from outside the UK. It is equally clear that one newcomer, GB News, has been testing to the limit how far it can go in ignoring impartiality rules by its choice of presenters and lines of questioning. These have been dealt with by Ofcom, at best by a tap on the wrist, often after a lengthy time of procrastination. Even more worrying are the decisions that conclude that there has been no code breach, or that complaints are not even being pursued.

We had some insight recently into Ofcom’s thinking from its chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes. When interviewed at an Oxford conference recently, she said that the BBC, ITV and Sky News should be “held to a higher standard” than channels with smaller audiences, such as GB News. This is a doctrine far from what Parliament has asked Ofcom to do. It opens the way for a weakening and undermining of standards for which there is no parliamentary authority, and it leads us down an already well-trodden path. In the United States there is no impartiality governance framework round the media. The abolition of the fairness doctrine in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan paved the way for the fractured and polarised media environment we see today in the USA.

Of course, the technological and communications revolution through which we are passing is going to involve great changes to what we watch and how we watch it, but we should not be bamboozled into throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We must retain a strong, resilient, well-funded BBC as the iron pole around which we maintain the highest standards in delivering the information on which an informed democracy can make its decisions.

We know from repeated surveys that UK viewers and listeners have trust in news and information provided by our public service broadcasters. In an era of social media disinformation and misinformation, where citizens in a democracy need to have confidence in the information they are receiving, this is more important than ever. If the Conservatives have plans to water down regulations governing broadcasting standards, they should put that in a manifesto and fight a general election on the matter.

Because of restrictions on time, I refer the Minister to the article in the Guardian by two very experienced former Ofcom executives, Stewart Purvis and Chris Banatvala, who set out in very clear detail the dangers, particularly in a general election year, of Ofcom being able to change its remit by the back door.

Our broadcast journalism is not only trusted but underpins the values of our liberal democracy. They are the values that the BBC World Service delivers to the wider world, often with great individual courage, adding greatly to our reputation and soft power. Some say that the tsunami of information now available through digital and social media means that impartiality rules for broadcasting and the trust they instil in the public are no longer necessary. I say they have never been more important, and I hope the Minister will say so today.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Ceidwadwyr 2:37, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on securing this important debate on the regulation of news broadcasting companies. The role of due impartiality in broadcasting is an important issue to discuss.

I should say that I have skin in the game, as I have a regular Friday night show—7 pm to 10 pm—on Times Radio, where I normally cover culture. I always have an MP on the show: sometimes I am interviewing a Labour MP, sometimes a Conservative MP. I also cover shows. I covered Mariella Frostrup’s show recently, where we changed the section “Meet the Member” to “Meet the Peer”. I was lucky enough to have the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, on that section, but I did not feel that at any point we strayed beyond the rules of due impartiality in discussing his distinguished career. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, has been on as “my frenemy” on a Sunday show hosted by Alexis Conran. And of course, I should say that the Minister has been a guest on my show as well.

But enough about me; let us talk about due impartiality, because it is important that we discuss it. Obviously, we need to think back: as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, pointed out, this has been around for 100 years. There is a reason why we have due impartiality rules, and there is a reason why we need to debate them now. We had them then because the BBC was by far the most dominant broadcaster, along with ITV and, to a certain extent, Sky News when it came into being. Most people got their news from linear television news, and it was important that they got it in as unbiased a fashion as possible. We have never worried about due impartiality from the rich newspaper ecology that we have in this country.

Now we face a very interesting landscape, where we have a plethora of new media companies able to launch because of technology—not just Times Radio but GB News, LBC and TalkTV. And we have streaming. If you decide that flat earth is your thing, you can spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, looking at flat earth conspiracy videos on YouTube. Amazon and Netflix are coming within Ofcom’s remit, but there is now a plethora of media.

We all know why we are talking about due impartiality. We want to avoid what we think we saw in the US, which was the rise of Fox News on the right—with its heavily biased programming and positions dictated to a certain extent by the management team—and CNN on the left. It is perhaps ironic that, if you examine the rise of President Trump, you might actually see that CNN played a bigger role, because, frankly, Trump was box office and got wall-to-wall coverage on CNN anyway.

When we discuss due impartiality, we need to be cautious. We need to have this debate not because we dislike GB News—although it does often air questionable content—or another right-wing broadcaster, because there are plenty of other stations that you could accuse of potentially breaching impartiality. LBC has David Lammy and James O’Brien—he is a broadcaster I admire, but nobody can pretend they do not know where his politics lie. The BBC has in fact today reappointed Robbie Gibb, a Conservative activist, to its board for another four years. Interestingly, in this Conservative Government, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, himself is investigating the BBC for due impartiality.

Nevertheless, I do support the thrust of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said in his remarks, which is that it is important, as much for Ofcom’s sake as for ours, that it is not left to develop policy on its own without some oversight from Parliament, some indication from Parliament, about which direction it should travel in—and I absolutely agree with him that Ofcom is an excellent regulator that has proved itself time and time again able to navigate distinctly choppy waters where people have very strong opinions. I thought the remarks from Melanie Dawes, the chief executive, about holding broadcasters with a higher audience to a higher standard, was an interesting adaptation of doctrine, a bit like a papal bull, which deserves to be discussed in Parliament.

I sat on the fence when I raised the issue at Second Reading of the Media Bill—and guess what? I am going sit on the fence again and simply come to the position that we need to debate what we mean by “due impartiality” in a fragmented media world. Having said that, I will get off this fence and say emphatically that we need to continue to regulate broadcasters and we need the essence of due impartiality to continue.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 2:43, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for this important discussion. Already, it has raised meaty topics. Yesterday, in the debate on the opposition of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, to foreign state ownership of the media, even those antagonistic to the politics of the Telegraph and the Spectator spoke passionately in support of media plurality.

While newspapers cover a wide range of political stances, in broadcasting there is a lot less viewpoint diversity, I would say, and we must ensure that any regulation does not narrow choice further. I am especially thinking of attitudes to three-year-old GB News. Love it or loathe it, the channel is surely a valuable shake-up of the media landscape, yet it has attracted a disproportionate hostility from influential voices. It is, however, popular with growing audiences, 60% of whom are based in the north. Some 3.5 million viewers watch the TV channel monthly; a further 3.5 million access its social media and 20 million its website. This month, GB News has had more views than Sky News 48% of the time and more than BBC News 29% of the time. So why are some so determined to scupper a popular channel?

Even before its launch, a liberal NGO, Stop Funding Hate, lobbied advertisers to boycott the channel, using corporate cash as a tool for censorship. More recently, big-name media players all over X have constantly urged their followers to complain about GBN to Ofcom, seemingly keen to regulate the channel out of existence. A year ago, GBN comprised 1.3% of total broadcast complaints to Ofcom. Now it is 11.3%. That is merited less by content than by politicised malice.

One complaint is the use of MPs as presenters. I am not sure how I feel about that, but some perspective is required. The channel has 30 main presenters who host their own shows, of which only two are serving MPs, appearing collectively for five hours a week out of a total of 126. What is more, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, explained, GBN did not invent the model: LBC has been doing it for years. Beyond David Lammy, in the past there has been LBC’s “Call Clegg”, “Ask Boris” and even “Phone Farage”.

I am not a cheerleader for GB News but a critical friend. Programmes such as Andrew Doyle’s “Free Speech Nation” and Michael Portillo’s culture show are the very best of UK public service broadcasting, but some shows are less to my taste. I am also a critical friend of all other broadcasters, such as the BBC; I have just been on “Politics Live”, but I have a love-hate relationship with much of the Beeb’s political output. We should not hold back from criticising channels when it is deserved, but that is not the same as trying to destroy them. I want a level regulatory playing field; otherwise, double standards might distort the focus of regulation.

In January, Jewish staff working for the BBC lodged formal complaints about anti-Semitism internally and including on coverage of the conflict. We have had BBC newsreaders ludicrously avoiding calling Hamas a terrorist organisation. As the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, noted in the Chamber on Tuesday, there are serious concerns about anti-Israel bias in the World Service Arabic division—never mind that one-man challenge to impartiality, Gary Lineker, who retweeted a bigoted demand that FIFA should ban the whole Israeli football team from international tournaments, with no consequences.

In contrast, the former BBC senior broadcast journalist Cath Walton recently wrote in the Critic about how BBC managers demanded that she delete a tweet criticising the term “cis women” within an hour of it being posted, followed by a lengthy disciplinary process in which her gender-critical views were treated as wrongthink. Ms Walton’s article was prompted by recent instances where the BBC’s lack of impartiality on sex and gender has led to seriously misleading audiences. Recently, BBC viewers were informed that men can breastfeed—spoiler: they cannot—with a non-binary identifying expert alleging, unchallenged, that the hormone-induced discharge from a trans woman’s nipples is better for babies than a mother’s breast milk. What misogynistic claptrap. Where are BBC Verify and Ofcom when you need them?

Sometimes, in the name of impartiality, facts are described as opinions due to institutionalised ideological partisanship. The BBC recently upheld a complaint against Radio 4’s Justin Webb which ruled that he broke impartiality rules when explaining a story with the factually accurate and true remark,

“trans women, in other words males”.

Finally, there are the sins of omission. Why has the BBC been absent and silent in covering the scandal of the safeguarding risks associated with puberty blockers for the young? Now that NHS England has banned them for teens, the BBC commissioned its LGBTQ+ correspondent to tell the story, not the science reporters to discuss the medical scandals. I am glad to say that GB News has been following, covering and leading on this for years.

Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Deputy Chairman of Committees 2:48, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for tabling this important debate.

I am aware of how careful Ofcom has been in the past about enforcing impartiality in broadcast media. The gold standard is its 2009 ruling against George Galloway’s presentation of two weekly programmes on the Iranian-based Press TV. Ofcom ruled that he had breached the Broadcasting Code on impartiality for failing to reflect a wide range of significant views and give due weight in each programme or linked programmes. That is especially important where a presenter such as George Galloway, who is known to have strongly held views, is being discussed.

The ruling added that, to comply with the code, when discussing

“matters of major political … controversy and major matters relating to current public policy”,

a broadcaster must have a range of significant alternative views in the programme. I have watched a series of programmes on GB News which did none of those things. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said that GB News puts out some of the finest public service output. I disagree.

Andrew Doyle gives an opinionated monologue which then in most cases is supported by the studio guests and followed by questions from the audience which also support those views. In one episode, the audience asked questions of major public policy such as the Church of England’s support of critical race theory and Lee Anderson’s attack on the Mayor of London for being under the control of Islamists. There was no alternative view. In the case of “Dewbs & Co” on the night of the Budget, the programme was almost entirely critical; there was only one audience member who was a bit happy with the Budget. Otherwise, everybody in the audience attacked it and they were supported by the studio guests. I thought that maybe the presenter, Michelle Dewberry, would restore the balance the following night but instead she doubled down with an attack on the Chancellor for opening the Budget with a statement on his plan for a Muslim memorial. She then went on to discuss the threat of wokery.

Ofcom has launched a series of investigations into GB News, including Neil Oliver’s conspiracy theory about turbo cancer being linked to the Pfizer Covid vaccination. The complaint against Oliver was not upheld. In defence of Ofcom, it has investigated and found against GB News for breach of impartiality in one case, but in others it has not upheld complaints because the programme was defined as current affairs. This comes down to the difference in definition between “news programme” and “current affairs programme”. In paragraph 1.8 of the regulator’s guidance, there is a definition of the news genre:

“news in whatever form would include news bulletins, news flashes and daily news magazine programmes”.

That seems to cover many of the GB News programmes I am worried about. As if to reinforce the point, when Ofcom issued a warning of breach to BBC “Newsnight” presenter Emily Maitlis over a partial monologue, it classified “Newsnight” as news.

Apart from a small reference to current affairs in the code on sponsorship, there is no definition of current affairs programmes in the Broadcasting Code or the guidelines. This lacuna was filled by a small blog from former Ofcom executive Kevin Bakhurst, which described current affairs programmes as

“a more long-form programme … extensive discussion … interviews with guests”.

This is vague and has been included in neither Ofcom guidelines nor the Broadcasting Code, so we are left with impartiality requirements for “news in whatever form”. I do not regard it as a defence for Ofcom to say that these GB News programmes are current affairs. Even if they are not, they are certainly discussing:

“Matters of major political … controversy” or

“major matters relating to … public policy”,

which are covered by the requirement for diverse views.

The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, raised the issue of politicians being presenters. The code is clear that presenters must not use the advantage of their regular appearances to promote their views in a way that compromises the requirement for due impartiality. To err on the side of free speech, Ofcom has left the interpretation to individual broadcasters. On LBC, there have been politicians such as David Lammy and Nigel Farage and presenters who have a partial political view such as Nick Ferrari. While broadcasting on LBC, Nigel Farage was impressive in his tough questioning of interviewees. He talked to a range of people with diverse views and asked them difficult questions. However, in his appearances on GB News, his trenchant views when discussing matters of major political controversy are supported in almost every case by interviewees who agree with him. Where is the range of alternative opinions demanded by the code and why has Ofcom done so little to enforce it?

I generally have huge respect for Ofcom, which does a great job of treading the tightrope of balancing free speech and enforcing the code in an increasingly polarised society. I would argue that maintaining that balance is the bulwark against increasing political polarisation, which we have seen in the USA with its editorialised news channels. However, I call on our regulator to look very carefully at channels presented by politicians or people with well-known political views. It needs to police them so that people with alternative views feel safe to express them and contribute to the free speech which is so crucial to a functioning democracy.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Non-affiliated 2:54, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on bringing this debate forward. He has been an indefatigable campaigner on this subject for many years. I also declare my interests as a trustee of Full Fact and the Public Interest News Foundation. An awful lot of what I would have touched on has already been said, so rather than go over it again I will make a series of slightly generalised points which may seem slightly separated from each other but, I hope, hang together coherently.

The underlying reality is that the media world is an ongoing, permanent revolution. What is appropriate, correct and accurate today may not be tomorrow or next week. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said, you cannot have a properly working free country with universal suffrage if those who live in it do not have a reasonably accurate understanding of what is going on in the public realm—subject to the obvious caveats. If that is the case, you must get the information to the public. This is something that we spend insufficient time thinking about, because it requires money; it cannot be done for nothing. How you get it and how it is deployed is very important. Within that framework, pluralism is very important, because to answer Pilate’s question “What is truth?” is much more difficult than saying what is not true. Hence there is a real need in the broadcasting landscape for as much truthful pluralism in the national debate as you can achieve.

As somebody who chaired a local newspaper company for over a decade, I say that we must not overlook the problems and issues covering news in the smaller local areas around the country. In some ways this is a much greater problem than the question of national and international news. While the development of local democracy reporting is something that I support, I am not sure that we have cracked the problem.

The world that we live in is defined by the Government of the day. As a basic proposition, I suggest that the Government of the day should be kept as far as possible from news gathering and the national Executives of this country and other government agencies should in general have as little as possible to do with setting the terms of reference or the modus operandi of news gatherers. As has been said already, it should be left to Parliament and the courts and independent regulators to do that within a framework of an independent judiciary.

I have considerable sympathy with the journalists’ basic proposition that you must keep government as far as possible from this aspect of public life. Furthermore, it is almost axiomatic that the very rich should not be able to provide “their news” as opposed to “the news”, and they should not be able to gag the news media or stop them from distributing material that is in the public interest. I am not quite sure whether we have got the balance right in this country.

In the age of digital communications, we cannot control everything outside our own jurisdiction. We must watch what techniques there may be for dealing with aspects related to that, but we must recognise this as a truth. Equally, along the same lines, it is not appropriate for foreign Governments to control and own media coming into our country, for the simple reason that, by definition, we cannot be their priority.

At Second Reading of the Media Bill, I made the point that the world is changing so fast, and we do not have an appropriate legislative framework for dealing with the changes as they come into effect. As I said, this is a permanent revolution, and a decennial Act of Parliament is not a relevant means of keeping on top of the matters that are so important. We in this Parliament spend a considerable amount of time debating and thinking about these things, which is right and proper and must continue because, as Thomas Jefferson said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We must not cease to be vigilant. One of Parliament’s most important roles as part of the checks and balances in our system is to establish the framework within which our fourth estate works.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 2:59, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and to sincerely thank him for the work that he does in attempting to provide some clarity and oversight, which is very obviously and urgently needed, coming from a civil society perspective. To reflect on the noble Lord’s speech, the rate of change and the difficulty of regulation highlights the need for us to have education on media literacy and critical thinking. The public need to have the tools; young people going through our education system need to look at something and see where it is coming from and understand it from a critical perspective. It is important that we stress that.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for securing this debate on such an important subject. I declare my position as a former newspaper editor with the Guardian Weekly; I also worked for the Times, the Independent and the Telegraph. I just want to mention that, unfortunately, I was not able to take part in the Second Reading of the Media Bill, but I plan to take part in the further stages. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I have also taken part in Times Radio’s “Political Frenemies”, along with the noble Lord, Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. That is the kind of case where you can get politicians talking with a neutral adjudicator in the middle, which is very different to politicians talking to each other. I mention to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, that there are more than two parties around if he wants to invite more parties on to his show.

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

Okay—the noble Baroness is a third party.

In preparing for today’s topic of debate, I looked back at a press release that I put out in 2012—a dozen years ago now—in immediate response to the Leveson report. Boy, there has been a lot of water under the bridge in our media since then. I said then that I welcomed what Leveson offered—most of it has not subsequently been delivered—and I criticised the report for its lack of tackling the issue of media ownership. We do not have the kind of plurality that we need—the kind of issues I addressed yesterday around overseas ownership, and in particular the ownership of the Telegraph. An issue there is whether and how mergers and acquisitions are referred, and that has not been dealt with.

I also want to come back to the rather fraught point of the potential for Leveson 2. My understanding is that in December, the Observer reported that Sir Keir Starmer was not intending to revive the second stage of the Leveson inquiry into press standards should he form the next Government—it was abandoned by the Conservative Party in 2018—nor would Labour oppose the plans to weaken the press regulation regime in the Media Bill. It is worth noting that under previous leaders, Labour was in favour of reviving the Leveson process. In May 2018, the former party leader, Ed Miliband, said that axing the second stage was “contemptible” and

“a matter of honour, of a promise we made”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/5/2018; col. 724.] to the victims of phone hacking. I know that a lot of things have happened, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. However, that scandal is still very much alive and present, as we saw recently in a court case.

It was suggested to me that this debate would be all about GB News; I will just take a minute on that. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that civil society campaigns, taking a stand, doing politics, HOPE not hate saying it thought that what GB News is doing was unacceptable and that brands might not want to be associated with it, are all part of the right of a free society for people to campaign and call for boycotts—that is another issue that we are tackling the Government on in another Bill. However, there are some serious questions that the Government must provide guidance to Ofcom on. Will Ofcom allow senior party officials to present election programmes as long as they are not candidates? Can a channel host party loyalists from only one side who deliver nightly polemics and try to direct the results of election campaigns? As a professional journalist myself, I can see that GB News has taken a pattern where, in the daytime it tends to be relatively straight and have ex-BBC presenters, but in the evening, when it is likely to have more impact, there is a very different tone. Therefore, when we are thinking about balance, surely Ofcom needs to look at the impact as well as just the content that is spread over 24 hours.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:04, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord McNally for this debate, and also for his role in the Communications Act 2003, when he and others, notably Lord Puttnam, paved the way for the last 20 years. I declare an interest; I was a TV journalist and an executive working for the PSBs—at the BBC, alongside the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, at ITV and at Channel 4. How lucky I was. How lucky the country is to have this cornucopia of public service broadcasting. Take Channel 4: the incubator of our independent production sector, but also the broadcaster of “Channel 4 News”—one hour of independent news and current affairs at the heart of peak time, giving us more choice of outstanding television journalism, all subject to the same standards of impartiality and accuracy as the BBC. An hour of peak-time news on a commercial channel: that is unheard of anywhere else.

A central part of the new regime 20 years ago was the introduction, as we have heard, of a new and powerful regulator, Ofcom. It was given a very clear duty to serve the interests of citizens as well as consumers. I can think of few more important elements of that duty than to uphold the rigorous traditions of impartial and accurate journalism that have served us so well for over 100 years. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, we are in a very different world from when Ofcom was established. I am glad that the Minister shares concerns about what should be in Ofcom’s regulatory scope in relation to online news channels, and that his department is consulting on the risk of unregulated content appearing on television. That is very timely, because of the Media Bill and also because TalkTV has decided to go online. Can the Minister say when we will be able to see the results of this consultation? Does he agree that there should be a level playing field with the Ofcom-regulated traditional broadcasters?

As my noble friend has said, as well as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, we have concerns about how Ofcom is dealing with GB News. A year ago, in advance of last year’s Budget, we saw two sitting Conservative MPs interview the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was not a challenging interview; it did not include a wide range of views. But it took Ofcom six months to decide that it breached impartiality rules. Timely investigation is very important, as is timely remedy—falsehood travels faster than the truth. And that case is not the only example of a tardy response from Ofcom. Does the Minister think Ofcom has the capacity to investigate such matters?

More worrying, as my noble friend mentioned. is when complaints are not even pursued. Last September, the then deputy chair of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson, interviewed the then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, about immigration. Ofcom received 1,500 complaints, but declined to pursue it. When asked by the Guardian last September about the propriety of a Conservative deputy chairman interviewing a Conservative Home Secretary, Ofcom’s CEO said that rules around impartiality

“require us to prioritise freedom of expression”.

But the idea that impartiality and free expression are somehow not compatible is wrong. The whole point of an impartiality regime is that it obliges channels to present all sides of any controversial public policy issue, so that citizens can make up their own minds after hearing a range of diverse opinions. Impartiality actually promotes plurality. Does the Minister think Ofcom’s current leadership understands this?

At a gathering of GB News staff pre launch, CEO Angelos Frangopoulos allegedly told them they were working not for a broadcaster but for a tech company—a disruptor. That is wrong. They should be regulated as any other broadcaster; there should not be a two-tier system. We saw the first disruptor, Rupert Murdoch, off. He wished Sky News was Fox News—something he told my noble friend Lord Fowler when I was sitting on his committee.

To conclude, more than ever we need news that can distance itself from the partisan. This is provided by the BBC and our other great PSB outlets. Others should not be allowed to act differently.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 3:10, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and all noble Lords who have contributed on this very topical issue. Having watched obviously biased TV news programmes from around the world over the years, I say that it is worth reminding ourselves that in the UK we can be rightly proud of our access to a range of high-quality, trusted and impartial news broadcasters. Central to those high standards are our public service broadcasters, which, in Ofcom’s words have

“a long and proud tradition in the UK, delivering impartial and trusted news”.

This is why we are committed to securing the future of the BBC as a universally owned, public service broadcaster holding, as it does, a well-deserved place at the heart of our national life.

As noble Lords have stressed, impartial, accurate, fact-checked news is vital not only to debate but to our democratic system. This is particularly important in this election year, when the distortions of social media campaigns and deepfakes threaten the very heart of our democratic decision-making. So we are hugely reliant on Ofcom stepping up to the mark and providing a robust defence of our broadcast news standards.

Of course we recognise that the broadcast landscape is changing, with a number of new TV networks entering the market. This has to be good for consumers, but the rise of new media moguls with high-profile political agendas underlines the need for clear rules and standards. This is why Ofcom needs to tackle breaches of the Broadcasting Code with determination.

Noble Lords have quite rightly asked what progress is being made with multiple investigations into potential breaches of the Broadcasting Code by GB News. While I am sure the culture programme hosted by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, does not cross the line, clearly news programmes hosted by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, Nigel Farage, Esther McVey and Philip Davies are not going to be impartial. They frequently interview each other or their colleagues from the Tory Benches—and they have been recruited precisely because they have strong views on one side of the political spectrum.

Ofcom’s rules say that politicians are not allowed to be newsreaders, interviewers or reporters in news programmes

“unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified”.

It is hard to imagine what the justification might be in the case of GB News. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said, if there is a blurred line between current affairs shows and news programmes, it is important that Ofcom clarifies that distinction with some urgency.

All this matters because the world of broadcast news and journalism is changing. As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, pointed out, the media world is in permanent revolution. The rules we design now have to be future-proofed to adapt to a changing landscape. What guarantees can we give to future audiences so that they can remain as proud of our broadcast output as we are today? The Media Bill gives us a chance to ensure public service broadcasters remain prominent in a digital age, but how can they remain a trusted source of news when AI and fake news threaten to undermine their output?

There is a lot riding on the shoulders of Ofcom, but as legislators we also need to play our part in setting future broadcast standards. Can the Minister say more about the department’s expectations of how broadcast media will change and how the Broadcasting Code is being reinterpreted for a modern age? What discussions have been held with Ofcom about its capacity to deliver an ever-widening role? Does it have the capacity, resources and support from Ministers that it needs to make difficult decisions and fulfil its remit? Can the Minister shed some light on the investigation processes of Ofcom? What is the practical impact of a broadcaster being found to have been in breach of the code and what sanctions are available? Is there a cumulative effect in the behaviour of a broadcaster? Are breaches considered to increase in significance if they are the second, third or fourth example of the code being disregarded? Finally, Ofcom announced last summer that it would conduct research into audience attitudes towards politicians hosting shows. When can we expect the conclusions to be published?

These are serious issues and I hope the Minister can provide reassurance on Ofcom’s role going forward. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 3:15, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for securing today’s debate and join in the commendation paid to him on his role in the Communications Act 2003 and the important work that it ushered in for the regulation of our media and broadcasting landscape over the last two decades. This is an important issue that he has been involved in not just for those 20 years but before as well. I agree with him that the issues that he puts before your Lordships’ House today are as important today as they have ever been. They are timely, too, with our debates that are taking place on the Media Bill.

We are very proud of the UK’s world-renowned broadcasting sector, through which British-made programmes are enjoyed by audiences both at home and across the globe. The regulatory framework that underpins that landscape is also looked to internationally as the gold standard for proportionate, fair and independent regulation. It is that framework which means that UK audiences know that they will be appropriately protected from harm and that they are able to complain to the independent regulator, Ofcom, if they have concerns.

Quality broadcast news has a long and proud history in this country and is an essential element of our media landscape. It supports our global reputation as the home of outstanding news journalism. Our regulatory system for broadcasting, put in place by Parliament, supports this. It ensures that audiences can encounter a diverse array of voices and perspectives, just as we have had in this short debate, and that they have access to fair and balanced sources of news. That is particularly important when we consider the influence that broadcast news can have on those who watch it, and the huge reach of TV content across the UK.

Recent Ofcom research shows that broadcast television is the most used platform for news content, watched by 70% of all adults in the UK. UK audiences also consistently rate television news as more accurate and trustworthy compared to other sources of news such as social media. The significant place that broadcast news has in our television and news landscape is what makes its regulation, and indeed debates like this, so important.

The Government are strongly committed to a pluralistic media. It is essential that audiences are able to access news from a range of sources, not just broadcast news, to allow them to form opinions in a considered and nuanced way. There is an important balance to be struck here to ensure that the protections in place for audiences are strong and effective but that those do not have an undue impact on the UK’s free and independent media, on which we rightly pride ourselves.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that it is important to arm those who consume our news with the critical thinking skills that they can get from learning subjects at school such as history, art and English literature. That is an issue that we discussed on the Online Safety Act and which we are looking at as we work on our cultural education plan. It is important to equip future generations to consume the news in a critical and thinking way.

It is in the context of a free and independent media that we consider Ofcom as the regulator of broadcast news content. Ofcom’s independence is an underlying principle of its function, and by law it carries out its duties independently of the Government. Ofcom is accountable to Parliament, with its duties and enforcement powers set out in statute, and we are confident that it has the resources it needs to carry out its important job.

As noble Lords are aware, Ofcom is required by legislation to draw up and enforce a Broadcasting Code for television and radio to ensure that audiences are adequately protected from harm. The code sets out rules so that these protections for audiences, including rules specifically to protect children, ensure that audiences are protected from harmful or offensive material and that broadcast news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and impartiality. Ofcom regulates programmes as broadcast against the code. It is for Ofcom to determine whether there has been a breach of the code and whether to take any action.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others raised the comments made earlier this month made by the head of Ofcom, Dame Melanie Dawes. Ofcom has been clear that its rules requiring due impartiality apply equally to all broadcasters. Under its code, Ofcom takes into account a range of factors when considering complaints, including the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, and the likely expectation of the audience regarding the content.

Importantly, in making any decision, Ofcom is required by legislation to strike a balance between ensuring an appropriate level of freedom of expression and adequate protections for audiences from harmful material. There are a number of sanctions available to Ofcom where a breach of the code has been found, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said. This includes levelling a fine and, in extreme cases, amending or revoking a broadcaster’s licence to broadcast, as has been done.

The Government consider that the enforcement powers given to Ofcom are appropriate and sufficient to provide a deterrent to organisations from breaching the rules. There are numerous examples of Ofcom using these enforcement measures to ensure that Broadcasting Code rules are upheld. It is rightly for Ofcom to determine the timing of its investigations and what sanctions, if any, are appropriate. While I understand the concerns raised by noble Lords about the length of time this can take, I hope they would also agree that it is important that Ofcom follows the requirements in legislation to make careful and nuanced judgments, and to take the time to do that and hear representations from all parties concerned.

Ofcom also has a duty to keep the Broadcasting Code under continual review. This is to ensure that the code remains up to date and continues to reflect the current viewing and broadcasting landscape. In this way, the regulatory framework is designed so that Ofcom can ensure that its regulation of content can adapt to the shifts in technology and audience expectations that we see in broadcasting today.

I will also touch on the regulation of the providers of news broadcasting, rather than just the content that appears on these channels, as I have discussed so far. Ofcom has an ongoing duty to be satisfied that the person holding a broadcasting licence is fit and proper to hold it. If any evidence came to light and Ofcom ceased to be satisfied that a licensee was fit and proper, Ofcom would move to revoke that licence, as it has in the past.

I also recognise the vital work of the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House, expertly chaired by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, and of which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is a valued member. The committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the future of news, which recognises the challenges faced by news providers in the current landscape, where we are seeing new technology, shifts in the ways that audiences access information, and concerns about trust and impartiality. This is a very important and complex topic, and one that is essential to consider if we are to face these challenges head on and work to maintain the delivery of trustworthy and well-respected news media in this country. My department has submitted written evidence to the committee on this subject, which I hope will be of use to it in the inquiry. We look forward to its report and the recommendations it may have.

With renewed thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for the opportunity to discuss the debates today and recognising that we will continue many of them in our deliberation on the Media Bill, I thank him for bringing forward this Question for Short Debate.