HL Deb 05 May 1994 vol 554 cc1209-12

Baroness Miller of Hendon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to amend Sections 57 to 62 of the Fair Trading Act 1973 so as to take account of technical and technological developments in forms of communication since 1973, and in particular to give the Monopolies and Mergers Commission powers to recommend divestment in appropriate cases.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, we are considering the newspaper merger provisions of the Fair Trading Act in the context of the cross-media ownership review. The consent of the President of the Board of Trade must be obtained before a newspaper merger can take place and a transaction without consent is void. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission has powers to recommend that a newspaper merger should be prohibited.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that, in the 20 years since the Act was passed, there has been an enormous explosion in the dissemination of news and political views through television, independent radio and also the increasing use of computers? Is it appreciated that Mr. Rupert Murdoch, who controls five national newspapers with a combined circulation of 10¾ million and a readership of 26 million, also controls, through satellite and cable television, one of the main channels of news into Britain?.

While that foreign gentleman cannot personally hope to emulate Signor Berlusconi, does not the Italian experience suggest that the controls on newspaper ownership should be extended to international multi-media publishers?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am of course aware that there has been a tremendous change in the whole media industry since the Fair Trading Act was passed. That is exactly one of the reasons that we are conducting the review: to examine exactly what changes might take place. Any acquisition of a UK newspaper by Mr. Rupert Murdoch or News International would require the prior consent of the President of the Board of Trade.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I take it that we are discussing the media in their broad form. I hope that the Minister agrees that all manner of questions are involved here. For example, if Arsenal's great triumph had been on Sky yesterday, many millions of people would not have had the chance to see it. I hope that noble Lords will join me in noting that only one club this year has won anything internationally.

On the point of the question, I heard the Minister use the word "review", which always worries me these days. Are we likely to see the review within our lifetime? I take it that at least the review body has been told its terms of reference. When will we hear about the review and will noble Lords have a chance to debate the central issue at some time within the foreseeable future?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the House will be pleased to know that I shall not follow the noble Lord down the road of his sporting analogies. However, I can confirm that the review is ongoing; the review body will report to Ministers later this summer and naturally any views that noble Lords have on the important issue will be taken into account. If they made their views known to the Secretary of State at the Department of National Heritage, I am sure that he would be grateful. No doubt later on there will be ample opportunity for the House to debate any conclusions.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Sky has the only impartial news programme? Probably he does. not have Sky, but it has the only impartial news column in the country, on the air or on television. However, I do not make exactly the same claim for the column I write every week in the News of the World.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the Government are blind to the issues of impartiality. We are looking for anti-competitive behaviour, and at this stage we have no evidence of it.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to remind the House that, if noble Lords have an interest to declare, they should declare it?

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, as the noble Lord invited your Lordships to make submissions to the committee, can he tell us who is the chairman of the review body so that we know to whom we send our opinions or comments?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is an internal, departmental government review. If the noble Lord makes his comments known to the Secretary of State at the Department of National Heritage, he will take them into account.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, it is only reasonable to say that Mr. Murdoch runs excellent newspapers. I have no interest whatever to declare. Is it not worth noting that he had to change his citizenship so that he could own both television services and newspapers in the United States? Should not the Common Market or, as some prefer to call it, the European Union, take that attitude as a starting point?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the European Commission has a role where mergers and takeovers are substantial in number. It takes a view and national views are taken into account at that stage. The nationality of proprietors is basically irrelevant.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the noble Lord be a little more informative about the nature of the review? My noble friend Lord Shepherd said that he would like to make representations, as might others of us. Apparently the Secretary of State will take them into account. That seems to be rather unsatisfactory. Will there be no more public knowledge of what is going on?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I do not understand the point the noble Lord is trying to make. The review concerns the provisions governing newspaper mergers and the Fair Trading Act, and the provisions on cross-media ownership in the Broadcasting Act 1990. The noble Lord may have his own review and, if he wants, he can let the Secretary of State know his views. It is not a public consultation, but obviously it is wide-ranging and we wish to have as many views as possible.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the real problem is the concentration of power in the hands of one man or one group? Whether or not the Sky news programmes are impartial is irrelevant, they could become partial overnight if the whim of the owner set them in that direction. The concerns of the House surely are the international implications of it all. Are the Government bearing that in mind in their review?

Lord Strathclyde

Yes, my Lords, it is one of the subjects at which the review body will look closely. We believe that at the moment there is a plurality and variety of opinion within the media in this country.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in the course of his reply the noble Lord indicated that this matter was one in which the European Commission had a role to play. He said that the Government's own views would be taken into account by the European Commission. Is the noble Lord aware that that is "bulling"? Will the Minister, at the same time as he conveys the views of Her Majesty's Government for the kind consideration of the Commission, take this House into his confidence and let us know what the Government's view is?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we are not consulting with the European Commission on aspects of our review. The point that I was making is that mergers involving companies that are over a certain size in terms of turnover fall for investigation by the European Commission under the EC merger regulation. However, there is a provision to allow member states to apply their rules on media plurality in parallel.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is there not a thing called the Independent Broadcasting Authority; and does it not have something to do with some of the anxieties that are being expressed in various parts of this House?

Lord Strathclyde

Indeed, my Lords, in the Broadcasting Act 1990 there was specific provision in relation to cross-ownership of terrestrial channels; but that did not include, for some very good reason, satellite channels. The review is now looking at the relationship between television companies, radio stations and newspapers, and possibly other media, to see whether any changes should take place in the law.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the Minister then clarify what I understood his Answer to be? Surely the problem raised by the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is that there is no control internally on the satellite channels. The point at issue, and the point, I take it, that this review body is looking at is precisely whether anything can be done about that. Can the Minister at least tell us whether that is what the review body is looking at—we hope with a view that we might like to talk about it at some time?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, that is one of the aspects at which the review body is looking. But the approach is much more broadly based; it is to determine how best to regulate ownership of all media within the United Kingdom.

Back to