Amendment 71

Media Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:42 pm ar 22 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Storey:

Moved by Lord Storey

71: Clause 42, page 83, leave out line 25 and insert— “(a) be made using a process OFCOM shall create within six months of the passing of the Media Act 2024 to enable application on a continuous basis, and”

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, my Amendments 71, 73 and 74 are concerned with local radio. For a moment I just want to remind people of the importance of local radio. In my own city of Liverpool, in the halcyon days there were two local newspapers, the Echo and the Daily Post, then along came Radio Merseyside—originally it was in two small almost cupboards in council buildings—and then, to a great fanfare, commercial local radio was established. The two print local newspapers and the two broadcast stations became an ecosystem. In those days, there were personalities presenting local news, current affairs and phone-in questions, and even attending local events. They had a local government reporter and they would vie with each other to get the best scoops and the best news.

Who would have thought in those wonderful days that now you would switch on your local commercial radio station and get a programme made in London, presented by somebody living in London, with production staff from London? You then discover that the local allowed input is probably just under a minute of local news and, if you are lucky, the weather and traffic news. Is that what local news is really about? Is that what we want in our country? I was fascinated to hear the Minister the other day quite rightly talking about the great successes of our PSBs, how they have embraced the whole country and how we have seen the establishment of production and of television studios in all parts of the country.

I wish the same was true of local radio. It is as if there are two furniture removal vans, one marked “radio”, which is heading towards London, and the other marked “television”, which is moving out of London and into the whole of our country. I received a letter from Radio Banbury, saying that a complaint was made that the former local radio station for Salisbury is no longer providing local news as required by its licence. The station is now owned by Bauer and runs as Greatest Hits Radio. Ofcom decided to take no action. One particular comment from Ofcom is of real interest:

“The Licensee explained that from 2 January 2024 it had planned to trial a ‘county’ bulletin for its stations in Wiltshire because it considered that the city-focused news bulletins for Salisbury ‘sounded jarring and parochial against industry-leading shows such as Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo’”.

As much as I like Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo, and think that there is definitely a role for commercial radio to cover the whole country, it should not be at the expense of our local radio stations. I hope the Minister considers my amendments very carefully. They are about saying that local stations that have been bought, almost ruthlessly, by Bauer or Global now get around the local news requirement by putting on a few minutes of local news, which is not really what this should be about.

The existing legislation within Section 314 of the Communications Act 2003 is being amended by the Media Bill so that the provision of local news and information is the only local requirement. It appears to regionalise the requirement, whereas existing FM licensees are held to a much tighter editorial area. A multiplex service covers a much larger area than the traditional FM coverage area. Under the current legislation, Ofcom allows local commercial licence holders to be compliant with just one 20-second local news story per hour. There is evidence that some stations have already moved to the regional model. Occasionally, traffic news is the only other evidence of information.

Existing legislation requires locally produced programming. FM licence holders are required to produce three hours each weekday from within their broadcast area. In recent years Ofcom has designed regions, aligned to the ITV regions, and the locally produced requirement is reached as long as the programme is produced within the region.

In reality, this means that stations as far apart as Banbury, Aylesbury and Winchester all share a local programme from Southampton. Often, there is no difference in the content, albeit the presenters are different. Aside from news bulletins, the content and music match that of all other stations in the network. The Media Bill removes the requirement for locally produced programming. It will leave local FM licensees allowed to operate as pseudo-national stations all day, every day, with the exception of 20-second regional news stories.

Ofcom last readvertised FM licences in 2019-20, allowing a fast-track process where current licence holders were not challenged. In 2020, the DCMS allowed unchallenged licence extensions for up to 10 years as long as the station committed to broadcasting on digital radio. At the same time, huge consolidation took place in the radio industry, with the main groups, Bauer and Global, purchasing radio stations across the country. For groups, paying to be on a digital radio multiplex is far cheaper and less risky than reapplying for their FM licence; most already have their service on DAB anyway. The result is that the vast majority of existing FM licences are held by the two big groups and are safe until 2030. At the same time, Ofcom is refusing to allow new applicants for FM licences.

If we want thriving local radio and if we want easy-listening competition for Radio 1 or 2, this is not the way to go about it. I am sure that, in our communities, we all want a radio station that is local.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, first, I need to apologise to noble Lords that I was not present at Second Reading. I am grateful to a number of local radio stations, and especially to Rob Persani of Rutland radio, which is where the Vale of Catmose is, for bringing to my attention the issue in Amendment 72. I am also grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster, who have put their names to the amendment. I also want to thank my noble friend the Minister for the meeting yesterday with the Secretary of State and the MP for Rutland and Melton, Alicia Kearns.

I support Amendments 71 and 73 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. The purpose of Amendment 72, however, is to ensure that Ofcom issues licences where there is no digital coverage. I accept that the wording of the amendment would need redrafting on Report to more clearly define the test needed where there are areas of no coverage. Applying for licences needs to be in the system outlined in Amendments 71 and 73. Ofcom does not need to run expensive competitions any more for FM licences, and it is not surprising that no new FM licences have been issued since 2009 if it has to run such a competition. As has been outlined, if you have a DAB licence, your FM licence is now automatically renewed. That simple process of renewal online with the payment of a fee could apply to new licences, rather than the expensive competition process that we had previously.

Commercial radio stations used to come in all shapes and sizes, so it is sad to learn, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, outlined, of the demise of local radio. “Much in little” is Rutland’s motto, and there are about 41,000 people living there, plus tourists. Rutland radio is a great way to find out what is happening in the local area, especially as you drive around, but it has areas where digital has no reach.

The vision of Ofcom for the digital switchover for local radio is called small-scale DAB—smaller areas where it issues what are called polygon licences. I assume for the purpose of Amendment 72 that, as with the internet, His Majesty’s Government’s policy is that everyone should have radio access. Looking at SS-DAB and FM, even if small-scale DAB was the answer technically, it is not small scale enough to work economically.

Instead of the one frequency that you need for an FM station—at a cost, I am informed, of around £15,000 plus your annual fee to Ofcom—under a polygon licence a station such as Banbury radio, as the noble Lord just mentioned, would have to buy three such licences for that small-scale area delineated by Ofcom, at triple the cost. The local economy of advertising, which is what supports those local FM radio stations, just cannot sustain that; the areas envisaged by small-scale DAB are just too big.

I am grateful that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, will cover the more technical issues relating to small-scale DAB, but, as I have outlined, it does not reach everywhere. In a place such as Rutland, it comes in and out when you drive between the villages and the two towns—yes, villages and two market towns is Rutland. Alicia Kearns MP recited to us yesterday how the digital signal goes out for lengthy periods when driving around. SS-DAB is fine for areas of greater population, but those areas do not need it. Apparently, there are pockets all around the country where you cannot get digital radio. No one is sure precisely where all those are, but it would be interesting to know from His Majesty’s Government whether they have looked at where the gaps are and what the internet coverage is in those areas. I suspect that there is quite a lot of correlation, but it is merely a suspicion.

Internet radio is also not the solution for those areas. Statistics from the UK Consumer Digital Index from Lloyds Bank show that 2.1 million people in the UK are offline, and 4.7 million people do not access the internet. Age UK did a survey of over-65s, and 2.7 million people, which is about 22% of that age group, are not accessing the internet. That could be due not to lack of coverage but to disability, cognition failure or vision problems. They will continue to rely on digital or FM radio.

It was rather prescient that, only yesterday, we raised with the Secretary of State that national resilience needs FM. In the national resilience strategy, it turns out that FM is the most resilient form of communication, so we will not be switching off FM in the near future. In the event of power outage or solar flares, it is the most resilient. Today, it just so happens that the Deputy Prime Minister is outlining the preparedness of household strategies to boost national resilience. The advice is to boost your analogue capabilities and buy a wind-up radio—but to receive what? FM, of course.

Why not allow those who want a new licence to broadcast on an FM frequency that will remain for the foreseeable future? All the commercial risk is on the operators. It will not cost His Majesty’s Government a penny. Also, the more people who continue using FM radios, the more resilient households are. They will know that their FM radio works and will not be scrambling around in the back of the wardrobe to dust it off in an emergency—but perhaps I am only the person who, on reading the national resilience strategy, is wondering where the batteries are for that torch that I bought, and where the candles are that I bought when the Deputy Prime Minister last talked to me about resilience.

Finally—and to give my second “it just so happens”—your Lordships’ House has just had a repeat of an Urgent Question from the other place on South West Water. In areas with no digital coverage and an emergency that is not a power outage, sometimes there is time to communicate with your population—for example, if there is flooding or a forest fire. But if you need to tell the public, “Stop drinking your tap water”, that is an immediate message. I hope that His Majesty’s Government are looking at how South West Water managed to communicate with all its customers in the local area. Sadly, as we renew only 0.1% of our mains water network each year, instead of the 1% average on the continent, I think that such incidents will be more frequent.

Many in your Lordships’ House will know of “Rutland Weekend Television” by Eric Idle, but the local coverage of Rutland radio and other local stations is not a comedy; it is essential. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will have some good news to tell your Lordships’ House on this amendment.

Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 72, to which I have put my name, and also to support Amendments 71, 73 and 74 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. These amendments will do much to support local radio.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, has already explained to us the regionalisation of local radio and the destruction it has caused. This has not been helped by cuts at the BBC, which are forcing many of its stations to regionalise as well. In the area in which I live, East Anglia, BBC Suffolk and BBC Norfolk broadcast the same content for much of the day. These stations are not local; they are regional, and in some cases national. They have fired local staff and closed local studios, and as brands move towards national broadcasting there are fewer regional centres.

This is why Amendment 72, and Amendments 71, 73 and 74, are needed. Once again, the Bill gives too much power to Ofcom to make decisions that we in Parliament should be making. Clause 42 opens up the possibility of Ofcom granting licences for local radio stations on the widest range of delivery mechanisms. This should be welcome news to independent local radio stations, most of which are available online but wish to expand their listenership by moving on to other means of reaching their listeners. This can be done by small-scale DAB, known as SS-DAB, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, or by analogue FM, which is what many of us use, especially those living in rural areas. FM is easily found on the radio and works much better in many rural areas, yet Ofcom has not granted it a licence for local radio stations since 2008. In a letter to Andy Green of Banbury FM, Ofcom wrote:

“we have decided not to carry out any further rounds of analogue licensing as this would have a significant impact on small scale DAB rollout.”

Clause 42 therefore gives Ofcom a choice that it does not want to exercise. There are local radio stations that want to use FM wavelengths, for reasons I will explain, but which will not be able to obtain them. If ever there was a moment for Parliament to offer Ofcom clear guidance that would help a struggling but important part of our media landscape, Amendments 71, 72, and 73 would do that. They would encourage Ofcom to consider granting them an analogue FM licence, and not just the default small-scale DAB option.

In this climate, it has never been more important to encourage local radio stations. I too have been speaking to Andy Green, of the ironically named Banbury FM, which does not broadcast on FM but is online daily with five minutes of news six times a day, three minutes of which is local. There is also a local events guide broadcast throughout the day, giving local listeners a schedule for what is going on in the area. The station is manned by local people from the Banbury area, so the chit-chat in between the music is about their lives locally and reflects back the locality to its people. But he cannot get an FM licence.

The present national grouping of most commercial radio stations compounds the leeching of resources away from local areas. Most local businesses cannot afford the advertising on the Bauer and Global so-called local brands; despite their local names, they have national advertising rates. However, new online local radio stations give an outlet for these local businesses to advertise at a price they can afford. At the moment, these local community stations find that broadcasting mainly online limits the audiences they can acquire, so of course they are eager to expand on to radio.

Since 2019, Ofcom has prioritised the granting of small-scale DAB to local stations. It carries more spectrum and so can carry more radio stations, but it does not suit all licences. However, to receive DAB, listeners need over 80%, and in some cases 100%, signal —this is easy in urban areas, but in sparsely populated rural areas it is often a big problem—whereas FM can be easily received on a much less powerful signal and can reach listeners much more easily.

The problem for local radio stations in Ofcom’s drive to force them on to small-scale DAB signals is that in many hilly areas with sparse populations, the small-scale DAB system needs more transmitters than FM to reach the same number of listeners. Often, they are twice the price to install of FM transmitters. DAB transmitters have to be carefully placed so that they are not near main roads or houses, because the strength of their signal will block out existing radio reception, so it is much more complicated to set them up.

I hope that the Minister will be guided by the words of his colleague the Secretary of State for Culture. She wrote in April this year: “We remain committed to ensuring that as many stations as possible have the opportunity to take out a broadcasting licence in a form which meets their needs over the coming years”. The Secretary of State has asked us to listen to the needs of local radio stations. Those in rural areas such as Banbury, South Buckinghamshire, Rutland and many others feel they need to be available on the FM spectrum. Unless the Government support this amendment, it looks as if that is not going to happen. Ofcom is undertaking a review of how effective its sixth round of the small-scale DAB rollout has been. In the past, Ofcom has been has given a choice that it has not always wished to exercise; now, it is our duty, as Parliament, to guide it in the direction of offering FM licences to local radio stations.

Amendments 71, 72 and 73 aim to allow local radio to find an audience by extending its licences. However, I also support Amendment 74, which will help local radio. The small stations I have been speaking about create local content about their area. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, says, the big brands, which have bought up local radio stations and turned them into national brands, are not doing that. They have closed local stations and fired local staff. As a result, local radio in the regions is in crisis. These huge companies, which generate vast profits from their so-called local brands, should be guided by Parliament to support the local media infrastructure in areas from which they draw their name, rather than relying on a distant regional or even national hub.

Now is a golden opportunity for the Minister to show that the Government believe in levelling up. I ask them to help local people find out about their local area on a local radio by whatever means works for them, not for Ofcom.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 5:00, 22 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is an extremely surreal moment to stand up just as the Prime Minister is about to walk out of the door of No. 10, maybe to announce a general election for 4 July. Of course, if that does happen it means we will be dealing with these very important issues during the wash-up process.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Ceidwadwyr

I just wanted to let the noble Lord know that Downing Street is delaying the announcement for 10 minutes so that we can hear his speech in full.

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

I am always grateful for suggestions from my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey.

The amendments that have already been debated are extremely important. I am particularly grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, for explaining the somewhat complex details surrounding the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. These amendments are really important in the context of going back to the sort of local radio stations we used to enjoy. He is also right to point out that a number of our debates have already demonstrated how important it is for Parliament to give a clear direction to Ofcom about its various activities.

I will concentrate on my Amendments 75 and 76. On Monday, I referred to the vital importance of Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act in creating an impartiality framework for TV and radio, building on earlier ones. That tradition of impartiality is the basis for the very high level of trust in our broadcast journalists—a tradition as vital for radio as it is for television. As I said on Monday, in an era of disinformation and conspiracy theories, spread so easily and quickly via social media, those impartiality requirements and the trust they engender in broadcast news and information are more important than ever. However, they are now under threat from a combination of a new generation of opinionated news stations and what appears to be the increasing reluctance of Ofcom to implement Parliament’s will.

Those impartiality rules, laid down by Parliament in 2003, are very clear. Section 319(2)(c) of the Act lays down that one of the standards objectives to be enforced by Ofcom is that

“news included in television and radio services is presented with due impartiality and that the impartiality requirements of section 320 are complied with”.

Section 320 states clearly that, for every radio and television service, due impartiality must be preserved in—this is critical—

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

In simple terms, I believe that means that the due impartiality requirements must apply equally to both news and what we might call current affairs.

Recently, however, Ofcom seems to be making a distinction, allowing greater latitude for current affairs programmes to escape the due impartiality requirement. The distinction was first raised on 21 March last year in an Ofcom blog posted by its then group director for broadcasting and online content, Kevin Bakhurst. It was headlined, “Can politicians present TV and radio shows? How our rules apply”. Mr Bakhurst stated that,

“generally speaking, if it’s a news programme, a politician cannot present”, but

“They are allowed to present other kinds of shows … including current affairs”.

Yet that distinction between news and current affairs appears nowhere in the relevant statute; nor did it appear in Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code or in the guidance that accompanies the code, yet Ofcom now clearly sees a distinction.

Last month, looking further into the issue of politicians presenting programmes, Ofcom commissioned IPSOS to carry out some focus groups among audiences. One of the conclusions in the IPSOS report was:

“Participants thought they could easily distinguish between news and current affairs … However, in practice, the presentation and style of these types of content blurred the line between news and current affairs which confused participants”.

IPSOS concluded that:

“The most prevalent opinion was feeling uncomfortable with politicians presenting current affairs content”.

While Ofcom appears to want news and current affairs to be treated separately, audiences have difficulty distinguishing between the two, so, just as the 2003 Act intended, news and current affairs programmes should both be covered by Sections 319 and 320 of the Act. The arbitrary distinction that Ofcom appears to have made between news and current affairs has no basis in law. After all, both quite clearly relate to

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

Were the distinction to continue, it would significantly weaken the impartiality framework, so Amendment 75 makes it clear that Parliament always intended news to incorporate current affairs, in line with audience expectations.

This brings us back to the issue about partisan presenters. We have some outstanding radio show presenters with well-known political allegiances, including some from this House. I mention in passing the excellent programmes on Times Radio presented by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and the newly ennobled noble Baroness, Lady Hazarika. We would not want to banish them from the air waves any more than we would want to banish, say, Nigel Farage from GB News. We are a liberal democracy, and we want to protect those contributions, but surely only if their shows live up to the same standards of impartiality required for news programmes.

Given the very high trust that audiences have invested in our broadcast services, as well as the clear audience discomfort with politically partisan presenters, we should seriously consider whether additional impartiality guardrails might be necessary for programmes hosted by well-known figures with well-recognised political allegiances. Amendment 76 addresses the rules around partisan presenters, whether on news or current affairs programmes, and it offers the simple proposal that the Secretary of State should review whether an enhanced duty of impartiality for such presenters might be necessary. The current rules around impartiality should not be allowed to be weakened by a regulator, certainly not without Parliament’s permission. Taken together, Amendment 75 and 76 seek to protect the legacy of trust which our broadcast media has taken decades to construct and which must not carelessly be disregarded.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Ceidwadwyr 5:15, 22 Mai 2024

Well, if no one is going to fill the gap, I will. I can confirm that a general election has not yet been announced—in deference to the excellent speech on radio from the noble Lord, Lord Foster. I thought I would make a few brief remarks —while we wait for this imminent event—with some reflections on radio.

I was lucky enough to be the Radio Minister for six years in the DCMS and now I am lucky enough to be a broadcaster on Times Radio—which is duly declared in my register of interests—so I have seen both sides of the fence. Ofcom has had a fantastic team looking after radio for many years and they are great experts on it. They were very much on the front foot when we discussed some of the mechanics and the engineering needed to extend digital radio.

The watchwords for radio are that we in Britain have an extremely successful radio ecosystem. We love our radio. We are also very far in advance of many other countries. To all intents and purposes, we have a universal digital network, which not many countries have. We still have our FM network. We have a plethora of radio stations, from legitimate national stations to quasi-national stations—which are really a group of regional stations knitted together—through to local radio stations and community radio stations. One of the things that I wanted to do most as a Minister was to support community radio. There is not enough money for it; there should be more money for it and for the engineering to support it. It is truly local radio. I used to visit places such as Swindon community radio which provided a vital service. It was run by volunteers and, rather like hospital radio, it is a great gateway into the radio industry and lots of young people still want to work in radio. That is very important.

It is a good thing, as it were, that the Government never made a firm decision on whether to switch over FM to digital and have allowed the radio industry in effect to lead that process and wait for it to come and say when it might be ready—when the dual costs may be too much or it might be sensible to go to a purely digital system. The other important point about radio is that the BBC sits at the heart of that radio ecosystem. That is one the important reasons to support the BBC but, at the same time, the BBC should be very mindful of its place and, in my view, be leaning in to providing the kind of radio services that commercial radio cannot afford to provide. In particular, that is local radio.

I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foster, that there is far too much broadcast regulation being made up on the hoof by Ofcom, without any guidance from Parliament. That is partly up to the Government to drive consultation and to frame the debate so that Parliament can have that debate and make some decisions. However, I accept that, as a Conservative Peer, broad- casting a show on Times Radio, it feels very odd to interview Wes Streeting about Labour’s health policy. The people who run Times Radio and who run other radio stations take their obligations to Ofcom very seriously. They have compliance departments and ask whether something will comply with Ofcom or cross a line. They are very mindful of the existing guidance that Ofcom prepares.

As I said in the Second Reading debate, we should not be misled in terms of thinking about this kind of regulation for opinionated news—if you like—a sort of hybrid. We should not be misled because we might not like GB News, because it is deemed to be a right-wing station. We should have a proper debate about whether there is room for opinionated news in the broadcast ecosystem, particularly as we are now so deep into such a rich information environment with social media.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I can usually spot a cunning plan when there is one afoot, and I fancy that our debate this afternoon is going to be overshadowed by events outside this House as the lectern has already been rolled out. This is an eclectic group of amendments which raise some important issues on radio regulation. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, in Amendments 71, 73 and 74 seeks to establish a baseline of locally provided programmes. I suspect we all have some sympathy with this.

There was a time when local radio was genuinely that: local. I well remember, as a local government leader, a time when both commercial and public service broadcast—BBC—radio stations used to call me up to face a quizzical reporter or phone-in audiences on local issues. But it has been a while since those days, as less and less content is generated from a locality. Basically, “local” means anything but that, as the programmes can be made and broadcast anywhere, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, accurately described, and have no particular geographical audience.

Most commercial radio stations now work to the same format and are owned by fewer and fewer companies, with little or no community input. Sadly, they have contributed to the overall decline of local news as well. As we know, the BBC has much reduced its local services—several noble Lords have mentioned this—as part of its slimming down of local radio. It remains an open question as to how practical and workable the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, are in the current context, and that is a question for us to consider.

I turn to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, particularly Amendment 72, which I think we would all accept hits on a very significant issue. If we want to look at radio coverage in the context of levelling up—and I think we should—we clearly have a long way to go, because there are definitely issues of access. Last year, we passed legislation that in theory should enable better coverage digitally, but it remains the case that rural areas are still significantly disadvantaged. In replying to the noble Baroness, can the Minister update the Committee today on progress and how the Government see, and are seeking, other means to redress this widely perceived imbalance? Are there, for instance, any government targets in place that are designed to move the UK towards a more universal quality of coverage that will take account of rural and local needs?

Turning to the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on radio news impartiality, I say that, yes, of course there should be careful consideration by Ofcom, both for television and radio, when current affairs shows are on either news stations or channels, or stations that focus heavily on news and current affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, seems to have introduced a new expression into our debate today: “opinionated news”. I thought that was a very good expression and not one I had heard before. I do not think that we can easily move away from challenging that. How we resolve the fact that politicians of a particular party host such shows in the face of regulations that are pretty clear on impartiality and balance is something we need now to seriously consider, and the noble Lord raises a telling question.

We must also ensure that Ofcom has the tools it needs to decide on impartiality when it comes to politically hosted shows. Perhaps the Minister could outline what discussions he and his department have had with Ofcom on this matter, because it is a matter of serious concern. We need considerable reassurance on this because, hand on heart, we cannot say that it is working as well as it should—despite what the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, says about Ofcom having a very good team covering radio. I am sure that is true and that great diligence is exhibited there, but we need to move on and ensure that Ofcom can get on with the job in a way that satisfies widespread public concern about impartiality rules.

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 pleased that we are now at the section of the Bill dealing with radio and able to say that the state of radio in the UK is in good health. The medium continues to be attractive to new generations of listeners, while the proportion of adults who listen each week is virtually unchanged from a decade ago. I imagine quite a few people are tuning in right now to their radios across the UK.

However, UK radio also faces many more challenges than it did in the past, with competition from technology platforms and online streaming providers, and it is vital that stations large and small are able to adapt their services in response to listeners’ preferences, which is why the measures in the Bill regarding radio are so important.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his Amendments 71 and 73, which would require Ofcom to determine the licensing process for new local and restricted services licences within six months of the Bill’s completed passage. We would, however, consider such a requirement on Ofcom to be unduly prescriptive. As the UK’s independent regulator, not only for radio but also for spectrum management and specific frequency allocations, we believe that Ofcom should continue to have wide discretion in how it carries out its functions in respect of its regulation of radio services. We are not persuaded that overlaying new and prescriptive requirements on its duties is necessary.

My noble friend Lady Berridge, speaking to Amendment 72, referred to the meeting we had yesterday with my honourable friend Julia Lopez, the Minister for Media, Tourism and the Creative Industries. I was very grateful to my noble friend and to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, for giving up their time to join us to discuss it. Her amendment seeks to ensure that, in areas defined as rural or in those that present a topographical issue—hilly or mountainous terrain or other things that get in the way of radio broadcast and limit the availability of digital services—Ofcom would be required to grant an FM licence to the organisation applying. That would mark a departure from the present licensing system, as we discussed yesterday, and create legal uncertainties about when this requirement applies and who would judge whether a particular area is unsuitable for a digital radio service.

Since 2003, Ofcom has had responsibility to secure the optimal use of the spectrum in determining where and how to license FM and other radio services. This amendment would conflict with that responsibility, especially in the case of areas where Ofcom judges that there may not be spectrum available to license further FM services.

Since 2010, Ofcom has successfully focused on developing community radio. A number of noble Lords rightly pointed out that this is greatly valued by people across the UK, with 320 services, the majority of which are on FM, across the country bringing an important degree of local choice and diversity. Ofcom has also focused on developing digital radio. Ofcom is currently focusing on small-scale DAB, which is now in its sixth round of licence awards, with 59 areas currently licensed, giving cost-effective opportunities for small commercial and community stations to broadcast on DAB as well as online. A number of these new multiplexes are located in more rural areas of the country, bringing new stations on air in these locations.

My noble friend raised very eloquently some pertinent points about the lack of services in more rural areas, such as the Vale of Catmose in her territorial designation. Ofcom has offered FM community radio licences in the most recent licensing round between 2017 and 2020 to people interested in developing community services. Although the most recent licensing round was a successful exercise, with more than 70 new community radio stations launching, rural areas with smaller populations may have specific challenges in being able to bring together viable proposals for community radio services, as my noble friend outlined in her speech.

With Ofcom’s licensing of small-scale DAB coming to a natural break point, I can tell my noble friend that we plan to work with Ofcom to look at the case for supporting new radio services in rural and remote areas and to assess possible options for helping to support these services get on air. To that end, my honourable friend Julia Lopez is very happy to write to Ofcom, asking it to provide advice on this, and to publish a copy of her letter. That can be done swiftly and I hope that, with that commitment to ask Ofcom to look at the case for supporting new stations in rural and remote areas, my noble friend will be content not to press her amendment and perhaps to continue to discuss this with us.

I turn to Amendment 74 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Like many who spoke, I recognise the important contribution that commercial radio stations play in delivering local news and other local information. The noble Lord’s amendment, which seeks to put in legislation the current requirements on local production and news drawn from the current Ofcom guidance, would be a significant change to the radio deregulation measures. It would reinstate the requirements for maintaining local production, resulting in higher costs for commercial radio broadcasters. By putting the current Ofcom localness guidance on a statutory basis, it would also limit Ofcom’s flexibility to develop new guidance that will set the expectations to enable Ofcom to hold stations to account for their compliance with the new locally gathered news and to adapt the guidance in future. Fixing these requirements in this way would result in additional long-term costs, which may have an impact on the financial viability of the sector and its ability to invest in content. It is worth noting that there are no similar provisions for the BBC under its royal charter or agreement.

The changes proposed in the Bill include important new protections for local news and information as well as new requirements, which Ofcom will be able to enforce, for a portion of local news coverage to be gathered locally—that is, by a professional journalist based in the relevant multiplex area. The Bill includes a power to extend these protections to digital radio for the first time, recognising that a further shift to digital broadcasting could reduce the availability of local news on local commercial radio using DAB.

The noble Lord mentioned the importance of locally based community radio services, the growth of community radio and the ongoing extension of small-scale DAB and new DAB-only stations. This means that there is now more choice for listeners and a wide range of community and small commercial stations in local areas across the country providing these services. We think that the overall approach—which protects and strengthens requirements to deliver local news and information—combined with powers to protect this provision for digital radio, is right for commercial radio and helps to ensure that it continues to deliver public value for listeners. For these reasons, I am not able to accept the noble Lord’s Amendment 74, although we have considered it carefully, as he hoped we would.

Amendments 75 and 76 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, are on due impartiality. We are proud of the UK’s world-renowned news and current affairs broadcasting sector, where British-made programmes are enjoyed by audiences both at home and across the globe. The regulatory framework that underpins this landscape, put in place by Parliament, is looked to internationally as the gold standard for the proportionate, fair and independent regulation of content. As noble Lords are aware, Ofcom is required by that framework to draw up and enforce a Broadcasting Code for television and radio to ensure that audiences are adequately protected from harm and that they can encounter a diverse array of voices and perspectives.

The Broadcasting Code sets out rules to ensure these protections for audiences, including rules specifically to protect children, to ensure that audiences are protected from harmful or offensive material, and to ensure that broadcast news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. Ofcom has a duty to keep the Broadcasting Code under continual review. This obligation is in place 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.

To this end, Ofcom recently published audience research on the specific concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, regarding politicians as presenters, and updated its guidance. Research uncovered a range of opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of having politicians as presenters. Overall, audience feedback supported existing due impartiality rules under the Broadcasting Code, which apply only to news. Viewers and listeners strongly value due impartiality as an important requirement, especially for news programmes, but they also value broadcasters’ freedom of expression and think that using politicians as presenters in non-news programmes can help to hold other politicians to account. I had the great pleasure of appearing on my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot’s Times Radio show, and I am happy to report that he gave me no easier a ride on that show than he does in your Lordships’ House.

There is clearly a balance to strike here, and it is right that Ofcom, as the independent regulator, retains the flexibility to keep these matters under review and to take a decision based on the best and most up-to-date evidence, rather than being unduly restricted in legislation.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 5:30, 22 Mai 2024

The Minister is missing the fundamental point. There is a simple question: does he believe, and is it the Government’s view, that the due impartiality regulations contained in Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act apply to both news and current affairs programmes?

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

I will happily write to the noble Lord with more detail on that, but we think the Bill strikes the right balance.

Photo of Lord Grade of Yarmouth Lord Grade of Yarmouth Ceidwadwyr

I do not wish to comment in any way, shape or form on the value or otherwise of any amendment to the Bill; I will just correct a statement. There is one code on due impartiality; the only difference between news and current affairs is that politicians are prohibited from being newscasters, if I can put it that way. The requirements for due impartiality are the same for news as for current affairs. The key word is “due”.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Perhaps the Minister can help here. I am wondering what a newscaster is, having heard what the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said.

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

I will write on that point, having consulted the noble Lord, Lord Grade, to make sure that I give the correct definition.

I am afraid that, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, will have understood, I am not able to accept his amendments and hope that he will be content not to press them.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 71 withdrawn.

Amendments 72 and 73 not moved.

Clause 42 agreed.

Clauses 43 and 44 agreed.

Amendment 74 not moved.

Clauses 45 to 47 agreed.

Amendments 75 and 76 not moved.

Clause 48: Regulation of radio selection services