HL Deb 18 May 2004 vol 661 cc637-40

Lord Lea of Crondall asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether newspaper proprietors should have more influence over the development of public policy than Parliament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

No, my Lords. Parliament is of course responsible for legislating on public policy issues. But in developing policy issues the Government listen to other views.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. First, does he agree with the analysis of Mr Geoff Mulgan, head of policy at No. 10, speaking in a lecture on 7 May, that, the lack of a strong ethic for searching for the truth in much of the media has the net result that the public are left with systematically inaccurate perspectives on the world—on issues ranging from Europe to migrants to public services? Secondly, does not the need to change the culture of unaccountability—the culture that you can print anything which is not libellous so long as it sells newspapers—make the case for a totally independent ombudsman, established by Parliament, to assess complaints about inaccuracies?.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I thought I heard sounds of approval for the views of my noble friend and those of Mr Geoff Mulgan from a number of quarters within the House. Mr Mulgan is entitled to his views as a private citizen. I assume that that is the basis on which he expressed them.

On the issue of self-regulation, we have the Press Complaints Commission, which has a significant number of lay members as well as editors of newspapers serving on it. We have editors of newspapers with contracts which require them to adhere to the principles of the Press Complaints Commission, and of course the lay members of the Press Complaints Commission are appointed by an independent appointments commission, which includes three Members of your Lordships' House.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, what is the point of the Press Complaints Commission if newspapers are never punished when found guilty?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not sure what the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, means by "punished"—clapped in irons? Brought before the Bar of the House?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, a little hit of money would not come amiss.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are few countries in the world which have government-appointed press regulation bodies. I can discover only two, but I cannot remember which they are. I would not wish us to join that small number of countries.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, is it acceptable in a democracy that one man or one company in which one man has a dominating influence should own not only several newspapers but perhaps also other interests in radio and television, so that there is a real lack of diversity in the ownership of newspapers and other media which influence public opinion?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I suspect that my noble friend is referring to a gentleman whom the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would describe as an Australian/American media mogul. If that is the case, I remind the noble Lord that in the Communications Act 2003, we provided criteria of the public interest in media mergers. Those criteria were the accurate presentation of news, the free expression of opinion and, to the extent reasonable and practical, a sufficient plurality of views in each market in the United Kingdom or part of the United Kingdom.

Lord McNally

My Lords, has the Minister noticed that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have taken to having regular meetings with that Australian/American media mogul? How can his Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry protect the public interest if deals are carved up in the rose garden of No. 10, where, as is reported in the Guardian, even the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is getting worried by the fact that many meetings take place in Downing Street with no minutes, no record and therefore no defence of the public interest.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I pay great attention to the activities of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it does not extend to monitoring their diaries, so I do not know who they meet. As to reports in the Guardian, I suppose in response to any question other than this I should say, "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers".

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, surely we cannot complain that newspaper proprietors are increasingly exerting influence over public policy, more so than Parliament, when the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council has just told the Financial Times that this Government, if re-elected, will seek to diminish the powers of your Lordships' House?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have not read the Financial Times and my noble friend may or may not have said what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, says. But it sounds to me like another example of, "Don't believe what you read in the newspapers, even the Financial Times".

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the way that this little interchange has developed is diverting attention from the ethical deficit at the core of the information society? Is not that the real question we should be dealing with rather than these kinds of exchanges?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Those who concentrate attention on some of the inevitably more extreme views of a press, which is not regulated in this country by government—and in our view it should not be regulated by government—still fall short of the standards referred to by the right reverent Prelate. Our duty as citizens and as readers of newspapers is to make choices on what we buy and read and to make our views felt if we are not satisfied.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the merits or demerits of the press, it does not help the general public to understand what is in a way the most important issue before us: that of Europe? If we are to have a referendum on the constitution, could not the Government do something to educate the public, who are at present absolutely ignorant about the issues on which they are to be asked to decide?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I understand that the House debated that issue at some length last week and that views such as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, expresses were expressed in that debate. It would be hugely controversial if the Government took upon themselves to inform the public about the issues in Europe during a referendum campaign. There could be considerable criticism.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, if newspaper proprietors indeed have more influence over public policy than Parliament, which is sovereign in this country, is that not the fault of Parliament, rather than the newspaper proprietors?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that was the assertion of my noble friend Lord Lea; I do not agree with it. I do not believe that newspaper proprietors have more sovereignty than Parliament; I believe that it is Parliament's responsibility to assert its sovereignty and I think it does.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, the original Question mentioned proprietors. We live in an era in which the dividing line between proprietors and shareholders is becoming ever more vague. Does my noble friend believe that the Government have either sufficient controls or influence in place to ensure that a very large shareholding purchased by someone from overseas in one of our national newspapers that tended to influence the policy and direction of that newspaper could be curtailed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have explained the context of the Communications Act, in which there is a public interest on behalf of which the Government might be entitled or obligated to intervene. I accept that there is a potential difference between proprietors and other shareholders. There are four kinds of newspaper proprietors: those who claim to influence editorial policy and do; those who claim to influence editorial policy but do not; those who do not claim to influence editorial policy but do; and those who do not claim to influence editorial policy and do not.

Lord Lawson of Blaby

My Lords—.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we are into the 10th minute.

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