Amendment 57

Media Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 7:00 pm ar 20 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Foster of Bath:

Moved by Lord Foster of Bath

57: After Clause 37, insert the following new Clause—“Age rating standardsWhere Tier 1 providers use an age rating or other classification system to comply with the duties imposed on them by or under this Act for the protection of audiences from harm, they must—(a) apply the age rating or classification system used by the video works authority based on their classification guidelines, or(b) apply an age rating or classification system that is judged by OFCOM to be—(i) based on a transparent set of appropriate standards,(ii) applied consistently across content,(iii) informed by regular consultation with the UK public, and(iv) well understood and recognised by the public.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause seeks to ensure that, where age ratings are used by Video on Demand platforms, those ratings are the same as the ones used by the British Board of Film Classification or meet equivalent standards of rigour, transparency, and objectivity.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Storey and with his permission, I move Amendment 57. It seeks to ensure that, where age ratings are used by video on demand channels—and I of course acknowledge that some adopt a different approach to audience protection—the ratings are the same as the ones used by the British Board of Film Classification or meet equivalent standards of rigour, transparency and objectivity. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who has worked tirelessly on this issue and whose amendments, while having the same effect as Amendment 57, provide much more detail on the procedures to be followed. We on these Benches support them, and the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton.

I welcome the Bill’s proposal to improve audience protection on streaming services through Ofcom reviews, but my concern is that the Bill does not specify on what basis Ofcom should consider measures to be adequate—echoing the point I made earlier on the need for Parliament to have a greater say in guiding Ofcom on the way it carries out its functions. This is a particular problem when it comes to age ratings, as not all age ratings are equally effective for child protection. The present lack of consistency risks undermining public confidence in age ratings in general and I know there is an unusual level of cross-party support on this particular issue.

In the ideal world—as I see it—all streaming content would carry a BBFC age rating. We expect this of cinema and DVD releases, so why not streaming? Netflix, Amazon, Apple and many others have demonstrated that this is achievable. However, in the interests of achieving consensus, at the very least there should be minimum standards to ensure greater consistency where services choose to use age ratings. This is essentially what all the amendments in this group seek to achieve. BBFC ratings are rightly trusted and valued by UK families. The BBFC is designated by the Government, accountable to Parliament and legally bound to take UK public opinion into account, which it does through extensive research. The BBFC is also fully transparent. It publishes its guidelines and provides detailed content advice to help families make informed choices. This is essential to the effectiveness of its ratings.

Streamers working with the BBFC automatically benefit from its transparency and consistency and from the massive public trust it enjoys. Netflix viewers understand what a 12 or a 15 means on Netflix because it means exactly the same thing as in cinemas or on DVD. I have looked at some of the services that do not use BBFC ratings, including Disney+, Paramount+ and Sky’s Now service. I did not find any information on their age rating criteria, nor any evidence of research underpinning their standards. The ratings these services apply are often misaligned with UK expectations. Even where films and series have a legally enforceable BBFC rating, they often choose to apply—bizarrely—a different rating. How can parents know which rating to trust when the BBFC says one thing and Disney says something different?

To give an example: “Beauty and the Beast”, the 2017 live action remake, was a PG in the cinemas and on DVD. It remains a PG online on those streamers that are working with the BBFC, including Amazon Prime and Apple TV, but on Disney+, for some reason, it has been reclassified as a 12+. Another example is “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the Freddie Mercury biopic. This has a BBFC rating of 12. Many families will have enjoyed it together at the cinema. It remains a 12 on Amazon, Apple and the other services that work with the BBFC, but on Disney+ it is 16+. This means that, if a parent wants to let their 12 year-old watch a film that is entirely appropriate for them, they need to set the child’s Disney+ profile to access 16+ content—but that would include many titles with a BBFC rating of 15 or 18.

At the same time, Disney classified a very sinister 2019 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” involving graphic horror scenes and sexual exploitation as a 9+. While Disney subsequently took this title down, it was a serious compliance failure when it was released with this rating in the first place. But Disney+ is not the only offender. On Paramount+, titles rated BBFC 12 are routinely bumped up to 15+, putting them alongside much stronger material. Do family favourites such as “Mean Girls”, “Top Gun: Maverick” and various titles in the Transformers series really belong alongside violent thrillers and gory horror movies?

As the Bill is clearly not going to mandate BBFC age ratings—that is ideally what I would like, but I accept the Government have a different view—the very least it can do is set minimum standards to help Ofcom assess whether any age rating system is likely to be effective for child protection. This does not create double regulation, as I believe some streamers have been suggesting, and, in any case, Ofcom already references BBFC ratings in the Broadcasting Code. This amendment and the others in this group propose common-sense standards that are not a high bar to expect companies to meet. Principles such as transparency, clarity and alignment with UK cultural expectations are the bare minimum for effective age ratings and should be set out on the face of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Ceidwadwyr 7:15, 20 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is a great honour to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Foster, who put the case for this group of amendments incredibly well. I do not want to go over the ground he has already covered, but I would just like to endorse three key points behind them.

First, children should be afforded the same protections against inappropriate content, whatever channel they are on. As my noble friend the Minister will remember well, what goes on in the real world should apply also to the digital world and vice versa. Secondly, it is the role of Parliament—no one else—to set out the rules when it comes to issues as important as the safety of children. Thirdly, companies that wilfully and knowingly fail to take steps to protect children should face the consequences. Those are the three principles behind this group of amendments and I thank the noble Lord for putting them so well.

I also thank some of the companies and stakeholders with whom I have engaged in the drafting of these amendments. As noble Lords may have noticed, the amendments have changed quite a lot between Second Reading and our meeting today. The reason is that companies have made good points and we have adjusted the amendments to reflect some of those: I thank in particular Disney and Sky for the engaging, positive and constructive way in which they have conducted these conversations.

Amendment 60 is incredibly straightforward. It is to include the British Board of Film Classification as a statutory consultee when Ofcom is drafting new video on demand codes. Statutory consultees are very common. The Children’s Commission was added during the Online Safety Bill and the BBFC is highly respected. So I hope very much that that could be waved through by my noble friend the Minister.

Amendment 61 is really the main focus of my remarks today. It would bring in a minimum standard across all ratings across tier 1 services. It would allow providers to either use the BBFC’s world-class and highly robust system or—and this is a very important “or”—a system of their own that meets equivalent standards. That is the gap that this amendment seeks to fill.

Following discussions with the providers, it also includes a provision for services provided by linear broadcasters to use a system based on the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. If I can, I will briefly explain that point. Many broadcasters have a linear service that is quite reasonably overseen by Ofcom and have a Broadcasting Code arrangement. It seems sensible—to me at least—that those standards should apply to their VOD broadcasts as well. That was one of the changes we were pleased to make to the amendments we have laid.

Amendment 61 sets out the process by which Ofcom can assess the ratings systems that are not based on the BBFC’s and, following the discussions I mentioned, the ability for Ofcom to designate some content, such as news or live events, as exempt from age ratings. That seems like a sensible exemption to me. Amendments 62 to 66 are consequential on Amendment 61 and would extend Ofcom’s enforcement powers to cover breaches related to the minimum standards for age-ratings requirements.

During Second Reading, there were some concerns raised that it would be inappropriate to mandate a particular solution and that these amendments might go against the tech-neutral approach of the overall Bill. If that were the case then I would share those concerns, but I reassure noble Lords, who will see this from the text, that those concerns are based on a misunderstanding of both the intent and substance of these amendments. The provisions would apply only to tier 1 services that choose to use age ratings as part of their overall audience protection duties. No service would be forced to use age ratings against its will and the requirements would not apply to any service that finds a different or better audience protection measure, whether that is tomorrow or in 50 years’ time. Nor would it mandate a specific age-ratings system, such as the BBFC’s. In fact, my amendment provides a clear choice of three different approaches, one including a bespoke service to them, provided it meets the minimum standards.

That is what my amendments are really about. They aim to ensure that, in the same way parents know what PG and 12A mean when they go to the cinema or buy a DVD, they can trust the age ratings that pop up on their TV at home or on the basis of their parental controls. For that reason, I hope very much indeed that my noble friend the Minister will embrace this set of amendments.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, Amendments 67 and 69 are in my name on the Marshalled List. Amendment 67 would add signposting measures to the audience protection measures which Ofcom must review under new Section 368OB of the Communications Act 2003. Amendment 69, in common with the amendments that have already been spoken to, would require Ofcom to consider whether age-rating systems used by a tier 1 service meet a set of minimum standards.

My amendments are very similar to those tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. The key to our amendments and those of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, is the need for us to be consistent in the way that we deal with children and age rating, so that systems are easily understood by parents and fulfil the standards that we have in this country about child protection, wherever it is. The Minister will be aware of all this, since he lived through the Bill that is now on the statute book as the Online Safety Act.

I was slightly surprised when I received a briefing which was signed by many of the stakeholders in this area—a number of companies, but it also included the PSBs. It made an argument against the three sets of amendments that have been put down. I was rather struck by this—I think they were a bit naughty in this briefing, in my view. For example, they included the public service broadcasters, which are not affected by this; this is absolutely not relevant to them. I would like the Minister to confirm that that is absolutely the case: this is not about their content at all.

The briefing also makes various statements about the commitment that many of the companies have to collaborating with Ofcom during the passage of the Bill, but that they want to take into consideration “audience research Ofcom conducts”. If it is the case that these companies are all committed to this then I can think of no reason why they would object to the minimum standards that we have put in our amendments being in the Bill. We are not saying that they should necessarily adopt the BBFC standards; what we are saying is that they need to show that their age ratings are comprehensive, understandable and sensible.

Some of these big beasts, if I might call them that, which have objected to this are doing it because they are big beasts. Frankly, I am unimpressed by that. We know, for example, that the same thing happened when New Zealand was dealing with this issue. But guess what? They are all complying with minimum standards there and it does not seem to have been a problem. If they can do it in New Zealand, I cannot see any reason why we would not be able to do it in this country.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I am in complete agreement with the noble Lords who have spoken about the need to protect children and vulnerable audiences from the harmful and inappropriate video on demand content to which they might be exposed. We are aware of the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere on the need to ensure that the protection measures used by on-demand services are robust, and that providers are rightly held to a high standard when delivering them.

This is a key issue that the Bill will address by bringing mainstream, TV-like on-demand services in scope of a new video on demand code. The code will be drafted and enforced by Ofcom, which has a long track record of regulating broadcast television to ensure that it is age-appropriate and protects the most vulnerable. Ofcom will also be required to conduct reviews of the audience protection measures being taken by all on-demand services, whether or not they are subject to the new code. I can reassure noble Lords that the concerns raised today are already well covered by the Bill as drafted. Ofcom will be given extensive powers to set standards, assess video on demand services’ audience protection measures, and take action that it considers appropriate. If audiences are concerned, they can complain to Ofcom and the regulator can, in the most serious cases, apply sanctions, such as financial penalties, or even restrict access to that service in the UK.

Amendment 67 would add

“information about where viewers can seek help and further resources if they have been affected by content” to the non-exhaustive list set out in new Section 368OB(4), a subsection which provides examples of audience protection measures. I agree that signposting audiences in this way is an important measure that all services should consider using where appropriate. I am pleased to say that many already do. However, the Bill already fully enables Ofcom to review or provide guidance on any such measures. The Bill, as drafted, purposely provides only a non-exhaustive list of measures that Ofcom can consider. As a result, it enables Ofcom to take into account anything it considers appropriate, which can of course include signposting.

Amendments 57 and 69 look to set specific standards for services that use age ratings—namely, that age ratings are consistent, recognised by UK audiences, based on transparent standards and

“informed by regular consultation with the … public”.

Let me be clear: the Bill already gives Ofcom the power to set these standards, and others, through its new video on demand code. It will rightly do that through consultation with audiences, providers and interested organisations such as the British Board of Film Classification. Ofcom must keep those rules under constant review, so that they can be adapted to take into account changes in audience expectation and technological change. In our view, the important thing is to ensure that effective protection is in place, rather than necessarily specifying as a matter of statute that systems have to be provided in a certain way or by any single or specific organisation.

Amendments 61 to 66 take this quite a few steps further by proposing an Ofcom certification scheme for those services which want to use age ratings but choose not to use the BBFC’s system. My concern is not only that this puts another responsibility on Ofcom but that it could actively discourage providers from using age ratings at all to avoid the need to get such measures certified.

I appreciate, as my noble friend Lord Bethell set out, that he has updated his amendment following dialogue with a number of companies to provide a new option for existing linear broadcasters: reliance on the Broadcasting Code when age-rating their content. This creates challenges of its own, given that the Broadcasting Code contains very little information on age ratings as they are rarely used on linear television. It is also unclear why, if the aim is for a consistent set of standards, some tier 1 providers should be treated differently from others in this way.

Finally, Amendment 60 places an obligation on Ofcom to consult the BBFC every time Ofcom considers a revision of the video on demand code. Such an obligation would be unnecessary and potentially inappropriate. While the BBFC has some interest in the issue of age classification, the scope of this amendment would include areas where it has little or no expertise—to give a topical example, it would include due impartiality in news. I reassure noble Lords that Ofcom is already obliged to consult widely with appropriate organisations. We are satisfied that Ofcom and the BBFC already have regular conversations on a number of issues.

The Government are proposing effective and proportionate regulation. That is why the Bill gives Ofcom an enhanced ongoing duty to assess all on-demand providers’ audience protection measures—not just age ratings—to ensure that the systems put in place are effective and fit for purpose. Ofcom will have the powers it needs to provide guidance, report, and deal with any providers it considers are not providing appropriate audience protections. We believe that this holistic approach will be more effective than any individual age-rating system or focus. We want to encourage innovation and flexibility to adapt to audiences, but prescribing a top-down approach would put that at risk.

I am pleased to say that the reforms proposed in the Bill are already having an effect. A broad coalition of providers, broadcasters and representatives of most of the mainstream services in the UK, including Disney and Paramount, have already come together and committed to ensuring that their on-demand services use appropriate and effective tools and technologies to meet the expectations of UK audiences, to protect children and give reassurance to British parents and carers. The industry is supportive of the Government’s goals, as set out in the Bill, and has committed to collaborating with Ofcom following its passage to ensure that its systems provide consistent outcomes.

By contrast, these amendments risk putting unnecessary restrictions on Ofcom and could, in effect, preclude change or any new forms of age rating entering the market, undermining the good progress that has already been made. I am sure that is not what my noble friend or other noble Lords would want to see. However, I appreciate the concerns that lie behind the amendments they have put forward; those are weighty concerns indeed. We have committed to listen to the interested parties on this debate, and we will continue to do that as the Bill progresses.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 7:30, 20 Mai 2024

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the Minister for his detailed response. Clearly, this is an issue we are very likely to return to on Report.

I have a couple of quick points the Minister might ponder on. He told us that Ofcom will be responsible for drafting the video on demand code. He said that will lead to Ofcom having extensive powers. But I am still left wondering how Ofcom is going to be made aware of the views of Parliament as it comes to draw up the code. How will we have any say in that code before it is finally put into place?

I confess that there were a couple of things the Minister said that slightly worried me. In response to a very simple amendment, which asked that one of Ofcom’s statutory consultees would be the BBFC, the Minister said, “We have discovered that Ofcom and the BBFC meet regularly”. I am sure they do, and I am delighted, but this Bill is meant to be future-proof and things could change later. I cannot understand why, if they meet regularly anyway, the BBFC cannot be listed as a statutory consultee.

Finally, it was slightly odd, given all the powers Ofcom has and how it will be able to do all this work, that when it comes to accrediting those who choose not to use an age-rating system, the Minister’s response appeared to be that Ofcom has too much on to take on that responsibility. I thought that was slightly odd. As I said, we are grateful to the Minister for his response, and I am certain we will be returning to this issue at a later date.

Amendment 57 withdrawn.

Schedule 5: Tier 1 services: Chapter to be inserted as Chapter 3 of Part 4A of the 2003 Act

Amendments 58 to 61 not moved.

Schedule 5 agreed.

Schedule 6: Tier 1 services: Further amendments of Part 4A of the 2003 Act

Amendments 62 to 66 not moved.

Schedule 6 agreed.

Schedule 7 agreed.

Clause 38: Audience protection reviews

Amendment 67 not moved.