HL Deb 19 January 1995 vol 560 cc751-3

3.8 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect the ownership structure of ITN to comply with Section 32(9) (a) of the Broadcasting Act 1990.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, the Independent Television Commission announced in November 1994 that, in the light of the Government's review of media ownership, its earlier deadline for compliance with these requirements will be extended by one year to 31st December 1995.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that, contrary to the provisions of the Act—which indicated a maximum shareholding of 20 per cent. in ITN—two shareholders currently control 72 per cent. of ITN? Is he further aware that those same two shareholders control 52 per cent. of ITV, which takes it news solely from ITN? Since they are in a position to arrange the supply contracts between ITN, which they control, and ITV, where they control 52 per cent., is that not a clear breach of the Fair Trading Act? Will the Minister refer this matter to the Director-General of Fair Trading?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the contract that the noble Lord describes was set in 1992, long before the changes that he described in the ownership either of ITV franchises or of ITN took place. The Government remain committed to encouraging accurate, impartial television news.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, is the Minister aware of a report in yesterday's Evening Standard that the existence of a non-competition agreement between ITN and Reuters was revealed; and that this in effect deprived Channel 4 of seeking a competitive news supply? Is that not a serious breach of competition policy, and will the Minister also refer this matter to the Director-General of Fair Trading?

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords. We will not refer either of the two matters to the Director-General of the Office of Fair Trading. Regarding the point that the noble Lord makes about Channel 4, it is up to Channel 4, if it wishes and when the current contract comes to an end, to renegotiate the contract with a body other than ITN.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the House has not so far found the answers satisfactory? I think that the Minister should attempt to answer the first question from my noble friend.

Does the Minister accept that Michael Green, who contributes a lot of money to the Tory Party, is chairman of ITN and also chairman of Carlton and therefore holds considerable power? Would it not be in his best interests, and indeed the interests of the country, if he were seen to be absolutely above suspicion in matters of this kind?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not know on what evidence the noble Lord bases his remarks about Mr. Green, the Chairman of Carlton Communications. I have absolutely no information that would corroborate anything that he said. It is important to remember that ITN remains statutorily obliged to produce high quality, impartial, independent news coverage—particularly in matters of political controversy or relating to current public policy. The Government remain committed to those principles. It is of course up to the ITC to enforce the 1990 Broadcasting Act. It can do so, and if it felt that ITN in any way fell below what is required it would enforce the restrictions.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, it is not a question of whether this power is or is not abused. The question is whether it is contrary to public interest that the power should be monopolised in so small an area. Will the noble Viscount address himself to that point?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are addressing ourselves to that point. As I said in my original Answer, a government review is taking place. Noble Lords will all be aware that the media industry is undergoing rapid technological change which is blurring the distinctions between different forms of media format. Our review has examined whether the current ownership rules strike a satisfactory balance. In doing so, it has looked at the need for diversity and choice for audiences while seeking to encourage UK interests to play an active and competitive part in national and international markets. That is why the ITC took the decision to extend the deadline by one year, to 31st December 1995.

Lord Richard

My Lords, does the Minister confirm the figures that were given by my noble friend? Is it right that two companies have 72 per cent. of ITN? If that is so, is it a percentage of which the Government approve; and do they intend to let it remain permanent?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the figures are correct, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard points out. The reason that this took place is that the Government changed the rules last year on the number of licences that a single person could have as regards ITV franchises. We are looking at this matter very closely. That is why the ITC decided to extend the deadline by one year.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, will the Minster give us an assurance that this situation is being frozen while the Government complete their review of cross-media ownership? Will he give the House an assurance that, once that review is over, this situation will not be allowed to continue, but that proper plurality of ownership in ITN will be restored?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we have to remember that there is plurality in the new service. After all, Reuters already provides the new service for GMTV, the national morning ITV licensee. The ITC is empowered by the Broadcasting Act to review the performance of nominated news providers and to determine whether another body might qualify for nomination. It intends to review the performance of ITN towards the end of this year.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will appreciate that this is not a situation which can continue. This is something which really has to be properly put right. The way matters are proceeding at the moment is not fair.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I understand the concerns of my noble friend, but the matter of the shareholding in ITN is totally separate from the fact that the company has to produce high quality, impartial, independent news coverage. That is an entirely different matter.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in that case why was the original legislation enacted in order to make sure that nobody had more than 20 per cent. of the shareholding?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. That legislation was enacted, as indeed was another piece of legislation which said that the ITV companies as whole should not control more than 50 per cent. That is why we are reviewing the matter, and that is why the ITC has extended its deadline.

Noble Lords

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