Amendment 1

Part of Media Bill - Report and Third Reading – in the House of Lords am 3:45 pm ar 23 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Northbrook Lord Northbrook Ceidwadwyr 3:45, 23 Mai 2024

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 9 in my name. I apologise to the House and to the Minister for having been alerted to this issue only after Committee. I am grateful for briefings from That’s TV and the Local TV Network.

The Conservative Government introduced local TV in 2012. This allowed locally targeted TV services to be introduced using frequencies freed up by the digital switchover process—the switch-off of analogue TV. There are now 34 local TV services in the UK licensed by Ofcom to broadcast on Freeview. Over three-quarters of these services are for smaller towns or cities of under 500,000 homes. Many of these areas receive little or no regular news about their location from any other television service.

The Bill is intended to secure the future of public service broadcasters by giving them guaranteed access to smart TV sets for their digital players, with the terms of carriage and prominence regulated by Ofcom. Similarly, the Bill grants all Ofcom-licensed radio services guaranteed access to smart speakers such as Alexa. Local TV services are designated as public service channels under the Communications Act 2003. However, local TV services are not included in the definition that the Bill uses for public service channels, which means that Ofcom will have no power to secure carriage and prominence for local TV digital services on smart TV sets.

As Freeview viewing diminishes, this omission represents an existential threat to the future of local TV and risks denying viewers access to news about their own area on TV. The Irish language service TG4 currently has reserved carriage on Freeview in Northern Ireland, to secure the availability of its service across the island of Ireland, in accordance with the Good Friday agreement. However, as drafted, the Bill also fails to protect TG4’s access to internet TV platforms in Northern Ireland, or that of any other potential future PSB duly designated by Parliament under the SI process required by the Communications Act.

A cross-party group of MPs in the other place responded directly to the 2023 DCMS consultation on local TV, supporting the renewal of local TV Freeview licences and calling for local TV to be brought within the provisions of the Bill. Subsequently, on Report in the other place, Sir John Whittingdale tabled his own Amendment 78 to capture local TV. This was not adopted by the Government. However, the Commons Minister implied at that time that she would consider any amendment proposed in the Lords further.

The local TV sector is not asking for guaranteed carriage on smart TV sets today, but the sector is seeking support for a permissive amendment that will allow Ofcom, at its discretion, to secure this carriage for any public service channel defined consistently with the Communications Act 2003. Without an amendment, Ofcom will have no power to require any broadband TV platform to carry local TV services and any potential future public service channels on appropriate terms or with appropriate prominence. Powerful global TV manufacturers will be at liberty to refuse to carry the digital players of these services or to seek to demand premium rents.

This amendment is modest. It simply provides a framework that will allow the 2003 protection to continue into the future. It does not open the floodgates for unreliable news services but it allows Ofcom to make a determination as to whether a service is both willing and able to offer an internet programme service. If it does so determine, the service can be designated and obtain the protections afforded to other providers of public service content under the Bill. It also future-proofs the Bill for other potential public service providers.

With this amendment and cross-party support from the other place, I hope the Minister will take this as a signal of parliamentary interest and will explore options. If that does not happen, local TV news services may not be around for the next media Bill.