Baroness Featherstone debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport during the 2019 Parliament

Baroness Grey-Thompson Portrait Baroness Grey-Thompson (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 42, 50 and 51 in this group. I again draw your Lordships’ attention to my registered interests.

The UK’s public service broadcasters—the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5—and national broadcasters S4C, STV, and MG Alba, play an essential cultural, economic and social role, supporting British democratic values and underpinning the UK’s creative economy. They produce high-quality, distinctive content, informing, educating and entertaining audiences across the UK. Audiences support this. Seven in 10 UK adults want to see UK life and culture represented on screen. A similar number think that PSBs deliver well on programmes made for UK audiences. Six hours and nine minutes is spent watching BBC TV/iPlayer on average per person per week, which is more than Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video combined.

Currently, prominence is one of the main regulatory benefits provided to the PSBs, but the existing regime has not kept pace with technological change. It applies only to linear channels—for example, BBC One—delivered through the channel menu, also known as the electronic programme guide or EPG. The Media Bill updates the rules so that they will apply not just to PSB linear channels but to on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer. This is hugely welcome, but there is further opportunity to ensure that PSB prominence arrangements are future-proofed and watertight, protecting access to the content that people love and enjoy for future generations.

Amendment 42 is on the prominence of the EPG. While the Media Bill seeks to ensure that PSB on-demand services will appear prominently on regulated TV platforms, and PSB linear services within the EPG will continue to benefit from the existing prominence regime, there are no protections for the EPG itself. A growing number of IP-only households watch videos via a broadband connection. This is expected to exceed 50% of total households by the end of this decade. All this has led to more people watching content on demand. It does not mean the end of linear, which remains the single biggest way that people watch video content and delivers 82% of audiences’ consumption of BBC TV content. The familiarity of linear TV will continue to make it a popular discovery route for audiences, even as they move away from digital terrestrial television.

The PSBs have responded to the continuing need for live TV by investing in an online linear solution freely, but linear TV is being eroded. The EPG has been downgraded within TV user interfaces and the linear schedule hidden away. This comes at the expense of PSB. In internet-only homes, without a linear programme guide, the BBC gets just 22% of our normal consumption. The current rules do not enable Ofcom to support audiences by safeguarding this popular and familiar way of watching TV. The Government should use the Media Bill to update the Communications Act 2003 to safeguard linear TV, an important and familiar viewing route. This would also support audiences as the digital transition continues. The amendment would require Ofcom to give the EPG itself the degree of prominence that it considers appropriate. This is in keeping with the existing linear prominence framework, with high-level legislation underpinned by Ofcom guidance and codes. This is a flexible and future-proofed approach.

Amendments 50 and 51 concern the definition of “appropriate prominence”. The Media Bill gives PSB on-demands appropriate prominence but does not define what this means, leaving it open to interpretation. Ofcom will be the regulator of the prominence regime and sufficient direction and clarity about the outcomes that Parliament wishes to see is crucial in order to allow Ofcom to implement the rules robustly. As recommended by the CMS Select Committee, the PSBs should receive “significant” rather than “appropriate” prominence. The best way to secure this is for the Bill to set out explicitly what “appropriate” means. A further amendment to the Media Bill should also set out more concretely the areas of Ofcom guidance that the application of appropriate prominence should cover: for example, search, recommendations and personalisation, acting as a further safeguard. I beg to move.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, Amendments 46 and 47 are in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. We had a bit of a knock-around on “prominence” at Second Reading—was it “appropriate”, “significant” or, as the right reverend Prelate ventured, neither? Indeed, he was right; the word itself should be enough, for the Oxford English dictionary defines it as

“the state of being important, well known, or easy to notice”.

We want the PSBs, on any screen that offers choices between PSBs and streamers, to be important, well-known, and very easy to notice. It is vital, as commercial operators do not always want us to choose the PSB, because their gods are commercial. As we know, things can get very small and difficult on-screen when customers choosing it means less income—think about how hard it is to find that tiny “unsubscribe” notice when we want to get out of emails from some commercial arrangement we no longer want. It is not in commercial entities’ interests to make life easy for us; that is why we have to mandate and prescribe “prominence”. We on these Benches do not believe it is sufficient to leave it to Ofcom to define. I have heard the arguments about “appropriate” being perfectly adequate, and we beg to disagree.

For clarity, I am trying to get across that we on these Benches believe that prominence must be defined in legislation to guide Ofcom, and not be left open-ended for it. That definition should be crystal clear: that in every and any situation where channel choice is being offered, the PSB logo or whatever should be of equal or greater prominence to any other choice offered on the electronic programme guides.

The dangers of not specifying what prominence means or seeks to achieve in the Bill could include a loss of funding. PSBs often rely on public funding or subsidies to fulfil their mandate of providing programming that serves the public interest; without prominence, they may struggle to attract viewership and advertising revenue, leading to financial difficulties that could jeopardise their ability to produce the sort of high-quality content we want them to. PSBs may find it challenging to reach a wide audience, particularly in a crowded media landscape where viewers have numerous options for their entertainment; that could lead to a decline in their influence and relevance, making it harder for them to fulfil their role as a source of impartial news, educational programming and cultural content.

The public service mandate could be undermined, as PSBs are tasked with providing programming that serves the public interest, including news, current affairs and educational content. Without prominence, they may struggle, and their content may be overshadowed by commercial broadcasters or streaming services prioritising profit. It could also be a threat to media diversity and cause a loss of trust and accountability. Lastly, if public service broadcasters are not given prominence in a democratic society, there are issues around this that could arise: an erosion of media pluralism, a threat to freedom of information, diminished public discourse, a loss of accountability, and the undermining of democratic values, social cohesion, education and lifelong learning, and cultural preservation.

As this is a probing amendment, I encourage the Minister to think about bringing back his own amendment as an instruction to Ofcom in dealing with prominence, to say that, however it writes it regulations, PSBs must have equal or greater prominence than any other offer on the screen.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD)
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My Lords, summing up from these Benches on the amendments in this group, I congratulate those who have spoken, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. It crossed my mind as I was about to stand up that on the first day in Committee I was congratulating and following a prima ballerina and today it is an Olympian—which rather reduces my sense of myself. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is a remarkable example of what the Department for Culture, Media and Sport produces that we have as great legislators these great sportsmen and artists.

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Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD)
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My Lords, I declare an interest that I was a TV journalist and executive and worked for the BBC and ITV and made programmes for Channel 4.

We on these Benches are pleased that this Government’s attempt to privatise Channel 4 failed. However, one of the conditions of that attempt, removing its publisher-broadcasting status and allowing it to make its own programmes, has made it into this Bill as Clause 31, which we oppose.

As has been pointed out often to the Minister from these Benches, Channel 4 was created in 1982 by a Government led by Margaret Thatcher. Channel 4 certainly succeeded in fulfilling her business and economic philosophy, in that our world-beating independent production sector owes a huge debt to its creation. As for whether Mrs Thatcher was quite so happy with its creative content, I suspect not.

Channel 4 was conceived as a publisher-broadcaster, not like the BBC/ITV duopoly which existed at that time and made its own programmes in its own studios, but commissioning entirely from what was then a small and innovative band of producers. As a consequence, the television industry in this country diversified as it provided new and exciting opportunities to creative entrepreneurs throughout the UK. In the TV world, it empowered and nurtured small independent producers and start-ups—the companies we were talking about in our first debate today. It played a pivotal role in driving the growth, competitiveness and creative diversity of UK indies. These companies were one of the UK creative industries’ greatest success stories.

Channel 4 invests a greater proportion of its revenue in independent UK commissions than any other PSB or commercial broadcaster, and its publisher-broadcaster status has also meant that Channel 4’s commercial revenues are reinvested in UK content production. As well as being the incubator of our thriving independent production sector, Channel 4 is also the broadcaster of “Channel 4 News”. One hour of in-depth news and current affairs at the heart of peak time on a commercial channel is unheard of anywhere else.

And then, of course, there is its pioneering coverage of the Paralympics. I believe that Channel 4’s championing of this event has led to a worldwide change in the attitude towards disability—a view confirmed by Dame Sarah Storey on Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” this weekend about her experience at the Beijing Olympics. She revisited Beijing a year after the Olympics and went to a disabled sports club where she was told that the transformation in the way the disabled were treated in Chinese society was immeasurable.

Due to its expansion of digital channels, Channel 4’s viewing demographic is young and diverse. We believe the cost of establishing a new in-house production outfit would disrupt its business plan—these things that it has achieved—and take money away from commissioning from others.

I do not think we should change Channel 4. It was conceived for a reason: to grow the UK independent TV sector and to represent the voice of minorities. It has done that spectacularly. Channel 4 is a vital part of our creative economy, providing invaluable support to smaller independent production companies throughout the nations and regions, although, as mentioned earlier, this needs to be underpinned. It is a platform for exciting new programming, quality news and current affairs, and pioneering coverage of the Paralympics. Why change its remit?

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, I too oppose Clause 31. Channel 4—what a brilliant initiative, how extraordinary, and what a success. It is a cauldron of innovative and original talent, fundamental to our brilliant, creative country, providing a stream of talent for use by all the others, streaming, literally, into our country. It was created to foster competition and innovation in the broadcast sector, and it did. The approach allowed independent production companies to compete for contracts to create programmes rather than relying on in-house production by the channel itself—an approach the Government now seem to want it to adopt. In that independence, it still had to maintain high editorial standards, ensuring accuracy and impartiality and fairness. It had to reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom and to fulfil certain public service obligations to educate, inform and entertain with social responsibility. That model, rather than an in-house production facility and staff, enabled Channel 4 to operate efficiently.

Of course there are challenges. Channel 4 itself had become a bit reliant on production companies that have now grown big, but it is a cauldron of creative opportunity. Right now it is not having the easiest of times, but if it was producing in-house, cuts would be swingeing and challenging. As a commissioning body, it can better cut its cloth to meet the vagaries and ups and downs of its and our economy.

If the Government’s desired change were to take place, it would reduce the opportunities for independent producers, impacting the diversity and range of voices represented. It would risk creative stagnation. It would have financial implications and require investment in additional production facilities, staff and resources at a time when it is cash poor. And any shift in its programming strategy would impact its ability to attract and retain audiences. There would also be an impact on the independent production sector if this significant source of commissioning independent production companies were to be reduced, particularly the smaller ones and the ones producing risky and innovative content.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, the clause stand part debate tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, for whom I have immense respect, is, I am sure, well intentioned. As she said, it relates to the primary purpose of Channel 4, which is to be a commissioning public service broadcaster.

The Government’s desire to enable Channel 4 to produce programmes in-house as well as through its tried and tested commissioning route is undoubtedly novel and a new departure for the channel, but it is not without risk. As I recall, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, reminded us, it was announced as part of the Government’s decision not to privatise the channel. We all cheered that, but we were left uncertain as to the real intent behind the announcement.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, if I was investing significant amounts of money in improving the structures of the zoo, I would want a very long lease in order to do that. Extending it up to 150 years will make possible the provision of modern facilities for the zoo’s residents. Obviously, there are issues about keeping animals in captivity in the middle of a city, but the benefits far outweigh the detriment, and these days animal care is superb. I suspect that the animals are treated better than many humans in our capital city—but that is for another debate.

Like many Londoners, I have visited London Zoo on countless occasions. I became a member when I first became a parent. When I was being driven mad and was at the end of my tether, I would shove—or rather put—my daughter into her pushchair and go to the zoo. It was an endless source of entertainment and interest but was also educational and magical. Our favourites were the nocturnal house and the small monkeys. I can remember on one occasion taking my daughter up to the glass. This beautiful tiny golden lion tamarin monkey put his or her hand up to my daughter’s hand and they were looking at each other and communicating. It was just such a particularly tender moment; the wonder of that stayed with us for ever.

The noble Lord mentioned Bob Blackman, whose Private Member’s Bill this is. He talked of Guy the gorilla when he introduced the Bill to the House. I remember seeing Guy for the first time when I was young. He was so huge but so human, and I had never really seen that before.

Reading through the debate on the Bill in the other place and the memories and the stories that were told, it is clear how central London Zoo has been to many generations. I did not know that Charles Darwin had conducted many of his studies at the zoo. How many of us have stood and stared at the snakes in the reptile house—since Harry Potter, anyway—half fascinated and half scared, and half expecting them to talk to us in Parseltongue?

We all have London Zoo stories to tell because it is part of our history and our future. I used to worry about the larger animals having enough space and an environment conducive to their well-being, but the larger animals have now gone to Whipsnade. There are so many important issues that London Zoo tackles. Thanks to the breeding programme, animals facing extinction are now safe for the future. Conservation programmes, animal care and breeding programmes all contribute to a vital and living entity—one where all our children can learn about, experience and enjoy seeing animals such as birds, fish and reptiles, whose variety in size and colour is awesome.

The zoo provides valuable educational opportunities for visitors of all ages to learn and experience wildlife, biodiversity and conservation. Through exhibits, educational programmes and interactive experiences the zoo raises awareness of protecting endangered species and their habitats.

The zoo is actively engaged and involved in conservation efforts, including captive breeding programmes, species reintroduction initiatives, and funding research projects. By maintaining genetically diverse populations of endangered species and supporting field conservation projects, the zoo contributes to global biodiversity conservation. The zoo also provides researchers with opportunities to study animal behaviour, physiology and health in controlled environments. These studies yield valuable insights into wildlife biology and inform conservation strategies both in captivity and in the wild.

On species preservation, the zoo houses species that are rare or endangered in the wild, serving as a safety net against extinction. Through captive breeding programmes, the zoo can help bolster populations of threatened species and provide individuals for reintroduction to their native habitats.

On public engagement, London Zoo offers the opportunity for the public to connect with animals in a way that fosters empathy, appreciation and respect for wildlife. By providing close-up encounters and immersive experiences, the zoo can inspire visitors to take action to protect animals and their habitats, and to be aware of such matters throughout their lives.

On animal welfare, London Zoo prioritises the well-being of its animals through enrichment programmes, veterinary care and habitat enhancements.

It is now time to upgrade the facilities and modernise, but it will be expensive. Some structures have historic value and therefore have to be retained but revamped, which is more expensive than simple demolition and reconstruction. Building or renovating part of the zoo also involves long-term planning and investment strategies which are aimed at achieving sustainable growth and financial viability over time. There is the initial investment in building any new part of a zoo, and the costs can be, as I said, substantial, including the expense associated with construction, infrastructure, landscaping and animal habitats. The length of time it takes to recoup initial investment costs will depend on the magnitude of the investment and on the zoo’s ability to generate revenue from new structures.

By lengthening the lease, the Bill makes the project viable for the zoo and for investors and provides the time to recover the outlay. It is important that today, we ensure the future of the zoo and the future well-being of the animals in its care. We on these Benches therefore support the extension of the lease on London Zoo and wish it every success going forward.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 32, to which I have added my name. The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, has made an excellent case—I am not sure that I need to speak, but I am going to regardless—for the longer retention of this significant broadcasting platform, which serves millions of households and is a vital lifeline for the many who will become members of the digitally excluded if there is no extension to the current regime. According to statistics from Ofcom, in 2021, around 7% of United Kingdom households relied solely on DTT for their television viewing, and it is currently accessible to 98.5% of the population—pretty much everyone. If and when this goes ahead, those who rely on DTT and cannot for whatever reason—whether it is poverty or otherwise—transition to satellite, cable or internet-based services will be cut off, and the people in that position will obviously be the most vulnerable or poorest.

Television plays a central role in the lives of many people, including me; I love television. It provides entertainment and information, as well as a sense of shared experience and companionship. For those who are not tech savvy or have no access to alternative forms of television, it will be devastating. Transitioning to those alternatives is expensive. Potential upfront costs for equipment such as satellite dishes, set-top boxes and smart TVs for households on limited budgets will be unaffordable. We will be looking at an increase in social isolation and loneliness and loss of mental stimulation and cognitive function, as well as loss of emotional well-being and stress relief. There will be a cessation of access to information and news and physical health impacts.

I assume that this is a probing amendment at this point. I hope that the Minister will agree to extend the deadline for the termination of DTT but will also say something about financial or other support for those who are literally dependent on DTT and who will be adversely affected by its termination should the Government not be swayed by the amendments.

The ending of DTT would also have implications for the broadcasting industry. Distribution strategies will need to change. There will probably be a need to renegotiate contracts with distribution partners and to invest in new technology to deliver content over alternative channels. There may be a loss of advertising revenue; costs to consumers for subscription fees to alternative services; equipment and infrastructure costs for both consumers and suppliers; and an economic impact on related industries, because the broadcasting industry is interconnected with various other sectors of the economy, including advertising, content production and technology manufacturing. Losing DTT will have ripple effects throughout those industries, leading to job losses, reduced investment and decreased economic activity.

We will also see the exacerbation of the digital divide, as so well documented, as the noble Baroness said, in the Communications and Digital Committee’s report, Digital Exclusion. There will be increasing disparities in access to television services between different socioeconomic groups. While urban areas may have access to a wide range of alternative services, rural and remote areas will have limited choices and poorer quality of service, which would further marginalise communities that already face barriers to accessing digital technology.

Further, DTT plays a critical role in emergency broadcasting, warnings to the public and so on. Having just gone through the Covid experience, we know how important that is. The loss of DTT could compromise the effectiveness of emergency broadcasting systems, particularly for individuals who rely solely on over-the-air broadcasting. The loss of DTT, which supports public service broadcasting, could also diminish the availability of programming that serves the public interest—we heard how vital that is in our earlier debate on the first group of amendments—including educational content, cultural programming and programming for minority audiences. It could also reduce diversity in the media landscape, particularly if alternative platforms prioritise commercial interest over public service obligations, which I fear may be the case.

The Broadcast 2040+ campaign, as has been mentioned, is fighting this corner and has two core messages to deliver to the Government. The first is that broadcast services are relied on by millions of people and must be protected, and the second is that the Government must act now to safeguard these vital national assets for the long term, into the 2040s and beyond. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to address the issues that I have raised, and I look forward to his response.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD)
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I was going to speak to these amendments, but they have been so comprehensively covered by the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Fraser, and my noble friend Lady Featherstone that I will just say that I support the amendments and I hope that the Minister has listened and will respond positively.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, the Media Bill is good, but it can be better. That is what I trust we will achieve during its passage here.

We are so fortunate with our PSBs, which form a miraculous ecosystem that lies at the heart of our nation, our common understanding, our daily lives and our conversations. It is not only our unique selling point but the birthplace and cauldron that nurtures the extraordinary talents that we boast in this country. It is no mystery why the streamers have streamed here: tax breaks and talent. Paramount, among others, has spoken out about the importance of PSBs to inward investment. It says: “We have a special place in the UK market as a huge investor each year across film, pay TV, PSB, Channel 5 and streaming. We have always been very clear that PSBs are the cornerstone of the UK content sector and that is what makes it so attractive for inward investment”.

Budgets are being squeezed, and our PSBs are up against a proliferation of streamers with global competitors worldwide with very deep pockets; so, as we welcome the brilliant and differing content and jobs and inward investment that the streamers make, we need to ensure that the pure size and commercial power that the streamers have cannot simply ace them out. British dramas are great exports but are also important to our nation, as we recently saw with “Mr Bates”, but they are so much more. We want to make sure that we can keep making brilliant programmes like that, “Happy Valley” and “Line of Duty”, and that audiences can find them easily and significantly.

The elements of betterment to the Bill are no mystery: prominence, listed events, live coverage clips, fair coverage, Channel 4’s change to remit, genres, smart speakers, unfettered access, content classification, Section 40, video on demand, local radio and local content and accessibility, among others. We and others across this House will undoubtedly lay amendments to test these and many more.

The modernised mission statement for our PSBs replaces the original 14 objectives with four generalised requirements. We are concerned that removing Ofcom’s responsibility to monitor the delivery of content in specific areas of public benefit may see these less commercially viable, but vitally important, areas decline. The current Bill is framed in consumerist, rather than societal, terms. “Inform, educate and entertain” is a long-standing, overarching aim for our PSBs. Ofcom will have a statutory duty to measure delivery of this content if it is in the Bill, not in quantitative terms but overall.

I turn to prominence. How that word has gained prominence in my life in recent days—in fact, I would say it had gained “significant” prominence, not simply “appropriate” prominence. I literally do not understand what the Government have against “significant” rather than “appropriate”. If the PSBs are not there, right at the front of the queue for viewers’ attention, they simply will not get it. So I very much hope that the Government may move on that in due course. “Significant” will give more power and impetus to Ofcom to ensure that UK viewers and listeners can continue to access high-quality programming and journalism from our PSBs in an ever more cluttered media offering. I also could not help but notice that Amazon, in its evidence, prefers “appropriate” to “significant”—which makes me think that “significant” is definitely what we need.

By the mid-2030s, 80% of Brits will get stuff online, and we are concerned that big shopfronts such as Amazon and Google will sell that visibility—will sell their shopfronts and prominence. The Bill has to intervene in that market, because it is clear that these gigantic superpowers may obliterate all before them if left free to roam. While I love Amazon and Netflix—actually, I love all of them; I have far too many subscriptions for the time available to use them—I also love and value our ecosystem of creativity.

Amazon MGM, for example, which is the production and distribution arm, says that it has supported more than 16,000 full-time permanent jobs in 2022 and is creating new facilities at Shepperton. That is all brilliant, its investment goes right across the nations and it is working with film schools; but if we are not careful and we do not protect our PSBs, the cauldron of talent that is nurtured and grown by the BBC and others will be eaten up and will one day disappear. The very golden egg of whatever is in the water that grows our very British talent—I am sorry for those mixed metaphors —will have disappeared.

We are very happy that the Government cancelled their decision to privatise Channel 4, but we are concerned about what the change to empowering it to make its own programmes may do to the diversity and sustainability of the UK’s world-leading independent production sector and the employment and creativity it generates in the nations and regions. To date, Channel 4 says that that will not happen for at least five years, but as a publisher-broadcaster it does not produce its own programmes but commissions them instead every year from more than 300 independent production companies across the UK. Although it has come to rely on a few of the bigger ones it has created, for that investment in start- ups, it is very good that it does not have a list of preferred or approved production companies. That must not be put in jeopardy. It is the cauldron of our creators, and its future is vital in the role it plays in enabling small, new, inventive, adventurous programming. I think Margaret Thatcher had something to do with that.

The Bill makes it clear that listed event primary beneficiaries are terrestrial, and the existing regime makes it harder to hide behind a paywall. The Bill says the same should apply to streamers, but we need to extend that regime further in terms of digital rights, to clips and catch-up. People are increasingly accessing through digital and watch more and more after an event, using clips and catch-up, so these must not be hidden behind a paywall.

Undoubtedly, we will have to address the removal of Section 40, and on this we will find disagreement across the House. For these Benches, it is a bulwark against the overweening power of the press, let alone the inaccuracy and bias that already populates its titles. That power cannot remain untrammelled.

On radio, we need to ensure fairness in the choice of station, not unfair direction by owners of the appliance. There should be no charging of radio stations licensed by Ofcom, and we need to protect against overlaid unauthorised advertising. It is important that we have our own choice of what to listen to, be that national or local, entertainment, news, or other information. As this era of shifting and changing listening and viewing habits marches on, much of it online, we need to safe- guard the irreplaceable part radio plays in our lives. As smart speakers become more and more dominant, we need to ensure that such safeguards are in place.

On the nations and regions, local content is so important. We must ensure that appropriate and relevant material, not just local news, can reach local areas. We need diverse voices, and Welsh language and Gaelic broadcasting.

On inclusion, we need to be aware that millions still rely on free-to-air, but it is guaranteed only up to 2034. No long-term protections are in place and loss of these services would hit the most vulnerable, who are already disadvantaged by digital exclusion in so many ways. TV is a mainstay of the old, those without family and those who are lonely, as well as lower-income households, people living with disabilities and those in rural areas. Clear safeguards in law are needed.

Before I finish, I will say a little about Ofcom. It is growing and growing like Topsy, so I trust it will have the wherewithal not only to manage but excel at its task, employing the best for what will be a heavy responsibility going forward. Moreover, it is vital that dispute resolution is clear and attainable in the Bill. Ofcom needs to be empowered and powerful, and any issues need to be dealt with swiftly and strongly. To date, this has not been a noticeable feature of Ofcom, but it needs to be as it gets more and more responsibility.

We have something very special in this country. It is always difficult to put it into words, but it is part of our national identity; our cohesion; our unique selling point. We need this Bill to guard against any loss of that identity, or any damage to the creative furnace that is so important to our nation’s future. I and my colleagues look forward to working on the Bill and making it better than ever.

Broadcasting: Children’s Television

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
Thursday 2nd February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The Young Audiences Content Fund was always designed as a three-year pilot. Now that it is over, it is right that we assess the contestable funding model as a whole to understand how it can be used to help. Any further investment of public funding will need to be considered against that and future broadcasting needs, but we are supporting children’s television to ensure that future generations can benefit from it just as much as past ones have.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the children’s television production sector is internationally competitive?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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With our wider support for the broadcasting system set out in the White Paper, we are ensuring that all our public service broadcasters can compete with the new streaming platforms we see entering the market. The media Bill will deliver on some of the proposals put forward in the White Paper.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, the power to amplify, together with the volume and speed of the online world, has put power in the hands of individuals and organisations, for better or for worse. While we seek to control the worst, we also have to be aware that we now have the most extraordinary communication tool for ideas, gathering others to our cause and getting information around the world in a flash, as well as providing avenues for those in countries that do not have the miracle of free speech to contact the outside world, because their media, and they, are state-controlled.

Of course, what is illegal offline is illegal online. That is the easy bit, and where my preference undeniably lies. The new offences, dealing with what were some of the “legal but harmful” issues, cover off some of the most egregious of those issues.

In our last debate on freedom of expression, I said:

“I want maximum controls in my own home. Put power in my hands”.—[Official Report, 27/10/22; col. 1626.]


The user empowerment now in the Bill will target things such as suicide content, eating disorder content, abuse targeting race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability and gender reassignment, and the incitement of hatred against people with those characteristics. But I will argue, as others have, that a default setting must be in place so that such material is not available unless chosen. Thus the algorithmic onslaught of content that follows a single search can be averted. More importantly, vulnerable adults, who may not be capable of selection and exclusion, need that protection. We do not have to view what we do not want to see, but let that be our choice before we are fed it.

Equally absent with the removal of legal harms is violence against women. The onslaught of misogyny, bullying and worse at women is dangerous and totally unacceptable. A whole raft of organisations are behind this push to amend Clause 36 to require Ofcom to develop a VAWG—violence against women and girls—code of practice. I hope and trust that noble Lords across the House will be in support of this.

I want cyberflashing—sending pictures of genitals, which thankfully is now an offence in the Bill—to be amended so that it is about not whether there was intent by the sender to cause harm, as in the Bill now, but that the sender must have consent. Women are sick and tired of being made responsible for male misbehaviour. This time, let it be on the men to have that responsibility.

On children, age verification is nowhere near strong enough in the Bill in its current form. I trust that this will change during the Bill’s passage. Like probably everyone in this House, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for all the work she does.

In our legislative endeavour, we must guard against authoritarian creep, where the prohibition against what is truly harmful oversteps itself into a world where we are to be protected from absolutely anything that we do not like or agree with—or, worse, that the Government do not like or agree with. As others have said, the powers of the Secretary of State in the Bill are Orwellian and need to be pushed back.

Free speech presents challenges—that is the point—but the best way to challenge ideas with which you disagree is to confront them by marshalling better ethics, reason and evidence. Life can be dangerous, and ideas can be challenging. While we must not submit our intellect and freedoms to the mob, we must protect the vulnerable from that mob. That is the dividing line we must achieve in the Bill.

Arts and Creative Industries Strategy

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
Thursday 8th December 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, on bringing the debate and opening it so powerfully, and all noble Lords across the House for making a case for a strategy so ably. As always with regard to the creative sector, the most compelling, knowledgeable, logical and irrefutable arguments have been made by noble Lords across this House about the imperative for the Government to elevate creativity and the creative sector in their priorities for growth and levelling up.

Judging by the actions, not words, of this Government, the opposite is sadly true, as evidenced by a long list: 13 Secretaries of State in DCMS in as many years; the lack of cross-departmental working; the omission of arts in the EBacc; the reduction of university creative courses; the lack of protection for our creatives in negotiating Brexit; the focus on STEM not STEAM; the omission of the creative sector as one of the five priorities for growth in the Autumn Statement; the alleged interference by the Government in Arts Council funding; the delayed sector vision; and the lack of a strategy, which this debate rightly calls for.

Even the ex-but-one Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, opined:

“You know, sometimes I don’t understand what’s wrong with us. This is just about the most creative and imaginative country on earth—and yet sometimes we just don’t seem to have the gumption to exploit our intellectual property.”


It is a shame he never put his money where his mouth is. He did not have the gumption, and sadly I fear that Rishi Sunak appears to be in the same vein. He did manage to use the word “innovation” a few times, but seemingly without understanding what that actually means when it comes to investing in the creativity of our country, economic success, vision, originality and well-being. There is not only a compelling case for a strategy but a desperate need for one. Given the trouble the Government are in and our quest for growth, this is a lifebelt they really ought to grasp.

I have said before to this Government—in fact, from here, this time last year in the debate on the same subject, when the Liberal Democrats brought forward this issue; if some of my words seem familiar, it is because they are—that the following would be a good start for a creative strategy. We should get the barriers out of the way to trading and working with the EU, as we have just heard from the noble Baroness. We should educate our children properly and stop treating creative subjects like second-class citizens. We should respect and capitalise on the creative sector.

We should support and encourage our broadcast companies and recognise their irreplaceable value as the second-largest exporter of television programmes and formats in the world. We should support the BBC rather than undermining it and stop trying to sell off Channel 4. We should feed the ecosystem that spawns new and emerging talent, as well as being financially successful. We should ensure that broadcasters have continuing access to European platforms.

We should invest equally in STEM and STEAM. We should fight for rights for intellectual property. We should recognise the part played by creative courses in the innovation economy, ensuring that policies are retained and enhanced. We should support the freelancers, sole traders, part-timers and those with a portfolio of roles who people the creative industries, and ensure that the tax and welfare systems support them to thrive and earn well.

We should understand the contribution the advertising industry makes to our economy and how much of that relies on creatives. We should intensify and strengthen our creative core by promoting creative subjects in schools, further education and university. We should ask Ofsted to monitor the curriculum so that no school can easily drop music, art and drama. We should encourage institutions and businesses to collaborate with schools to provide cultural education and offer high-quality careers advice. We should make sure that high-quality apprenticeships are offered in the creative and digital industries, and get a grip on the pathways needed for screen skills.

We should promote the value of live events in small and large public venues, regional theatres, local halls and festivals across the country, and much more. Look at our gaming industry, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords. Look at the streamers streaming in; at our BBC, our designers, our musicians and so on. We in this country have a unique ability to create, to bring forward the new and produce the brilliant. Sadly, our innovators get snapped up by other countries, which put their investment into creative education. Look at Singapore; look at China.

We have heard from all parts of this House that the Government need to turbocharge their level of commitment to the creative sector. The low esteem in which creativity is held by this Government is unbearable, insulting and, more than that, plain stupid. The Secretary of State said the following in a letter to the Office for Students:

“Courses that are not among the Government’s strategic priorities—covering subjects in music, dance, drama and performing arts: art and design, media studies and archology are to be subject to a reduction of 50%”


That contempt was again on display in the way the Government negotiated Brexit. Just take music, for example. Our music industry, as has been said, contributed £5.8 billion to the economy in 2019. Brexit completely undermined our touring musicians and performers, but no thought was even given to that during the negotiations. I could go on and on—indeed, I am—but the point I am trying to drive home is that the Government have signalled clearly, at home and to the world, that the UK creative sector is not a priority and not important.

As several contributors have mentioned, the current inquiry of the Communications and Digital Committee, which will report shortly on our inquiry into the creative industry, has done excellent work under the stewardship of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, on this very issue. We have looked across the world and at the digital world ahead, and I have no doubt we will conclude that the vision, understanding, promotion and priority that the Government give to the creative sector is lacking.

Creativity is our secret weapon, our soft-power success. My noble friend Lord Foster of Bath pointed out that the creative sector’s economic contribution to our economy is bigger than that of the oil, gas, aerospace, life sciences and automotive sectors combined. That is enormous. How crazy it is that the various departments that bear responsibility for parts of that agenda have such poor cross-departmental working.

My noble friend Lord Storey highlighted that the Government expect 90% of students to do an EBacc, which means there will be almost no one studying the arts. My noble friend Lord Shipley emphasised how crucial school education and the national curriculum are to cultural subjects.

A number of companies and organisations have been fathoming out our future requirements. McKinsey’s 2018 report, Automation and the Workforce of the Future, demonstrated that creativity, critical thinking, decision-making and complex information processing are going to grow in coming years, from an already high base. According to Realizing 2030: a Divided Vision of the Future, a report by Dell Technologies and the Institute for the Future of Jobs, 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented yet, while 56% of business leaders say that schools will need to teach how to learn rather than what to learn, in order to prepare for that.

This is a critical moment of both opportunity and necessity to build back better and level up by using the talents of the most precious commodity we have: our human capital, our unique and original thinkers. However, it is also the moment of greatest jeopardy, because, if the Government fail to heed the wise words in this debate, they cannot deliver.

Freedom of Expression (Communications and Digital Committee Report)

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
Thursday 27th October 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, I too sat on the committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and now under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell.

The power to amplify, together with the volume and speed of the internet, have put power in the hands of individuals, organisations and tech companies, for better or worse. Now, we are seeking to control the worse, but as we do so I counsel that we remember that the internet has given us the most extraordinary communication tool for ideas, for gathering others to our cause and for getting information around the world quickly, as well as avenues for those in countries that do not have the miracle of free speech, because their media are state-controlled, to contact the outside world. So, getting the balance right between freedom of speech and the need to qualify it is a very important task. Of course, what is illegal offline is illegal online: that is the easy bit and I guess that is where my preference lies, with very few exceptions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, I want maximum controls in my own home. Put power in my hands—if I do not want to receive anonymous messages, I should be able to tap my screen and they should never bother me again. However, primarily, I want companies to be responsible for policing their content and Ofcom to regulate and act when companies do not comply with their codes. I would hope that that would be enough, as it has worked pretty successfully in broadcast and publication to date, but clearly the world has changed and we are in different territory. If something is likely to cause real, serious harm online, then, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, it should be made illegal.

However, as we are to legislate against less obviously harmful content, let us have a very short list of what will qualify. I saw the list on priority content that was published. The list is not unreasonable; the unreasonable part is putting any such power into the hands of the Secretary of State and not Parliament as a whole. We cannot give the state control over our media.

Overarchingly, we must leave room for adults to make their own decisions. We do not have to view what we do not want to see. We need to be careful in any legislative fervour to guard against authoritarian creep, where the prohibition against what is truly harmful oversteps into a world where we are to be protected from absolutely anything we do not like or agree with—or worse, that the Government do not like or agree with. That is really dangerous territory.

Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. I am concerned that we are already seeing authoritarian creep in things we have taken for granted for years, such as some curtailments on the right to protest. It has always been recognised that the right of people to criticise Governments, laws and social conditions is fundamental to democracy. Of course, free speech presents great challenges—that is the point—but from Socrates on, the very best way to challenge ideas you disagree with has been to confront them by marshalling better ethics, reasoning and evidence. I worry that we have become risk-averse to a degree where we are disabling ourselves.

When we bring in the Online Safety Bill, we must guard against disabling future generations by overprotecting them from the realities of our existence. Civilisation is only skin deep; we need to be able to think, counter arguments and fight back with strength of mind. Life is dangerous and ideas can be challenging. With too much protection, we will create an inability to build resilience. Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, cites the immune system: if you do not expose a human to various viruses or allergens, their immune system will not develop. We require a degree of exposure to stress to enable us to develop strength.

If we spend time only with people who agree with us, are like us or think like us—this is happening, as society is disaggregating into groups of the like-minded—we will be on a very dangerous road. Continuing to divide ourselves and narrow our circles to people, media or groups who agree with us is reductionist. It leaves us weak, suspicious and scared of the different. I am not fond of the term “snowflake”, because I think being sensitive to peoples’ feelings and sensitivities is a good thing. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox; I think trigger warnings are fine—they are just putting the power in your hands.

Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones, an American news and political commentator, author and lawyer said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically … I want you to be strong.”


If we eradicate words, ideas and subjects that cause discomfort or give offence, we weaken ourselves. I am worried that power will be held too close to the state. We must sort out the chaff from the wheat but, more than that, we must not submit our intellect and freedoms to the mob.

Channel 4: Annual Report

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
Thursday 21st July 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, the Government do not own the BBC. It is set up in a particular way to make it a state broadcaster, not a government broadcaster. We benefit from having a range of different channels with different ownership models. We are focused on making sure that Channel 4 can continue to thrive in the market, which is fast evolving.

Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My understanding of the public consultation was that 96% of respondents wanted Channel 4 to remain as it is. So why are the Minister and the Government not listening to people?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, we had a referendum and the noble Baroness’s party did not listen to the latter. We received 56,000 responses to the consultation, 40,000 of which were organised by the campaign group 38 Degrees, which is perfectly entitled to make its views known. We looked at all the consultation responses, but the Government have set out their thinking and their rationale for safeguarding the future of Channel 4.

Freedom of Speech

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
Friday 10th December 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Featherstone Portrait Baroness Featherstone (LD)
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My Lords, free speech, established by our laws and by our values, has always had its limits, but now it is under threat as we grapple with a world that seems to be full of hatred of “other” and intolerance of views that differ from our own, all amplified by the internet and social media and condoned and contributed to by those who should be setting an example of good behaviour—from the Prime Minister downward. We now have a proliferation of ways to abuse each other, whether it is because people disagree with us, or are richer than us, poorer than us, a different colour, religion, gender, class or sex, or even those who simply think differently. We have developed a sort of football team binary mentality: you are with us or you are against us.

And freedom of speech? Well, everyone is worked up about online safety—quite rightly—and we will no doubt have a worthy online safety Bill; we already have the recent inquiry, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, who is a member of the same committee on which I sit and so declare an interest; and we will no doubt have a further onslaught of frenzied activity by numerous regulators and digital platforms, all of which are there to push back this tsunami of hatred, intolerance, harm and threat. All of this is sadly necessary and will curb, hopefully, the worst of the harm, lies, misinformation, cancel culture, bullying and hate, without curtailing free speech.

In the end, however, I would say that, whatever the medium, that is not the real villain; it is the human messengers and the message itself that the public, private and civil society sectors need to have a role in, as do we as individuals. That is why the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is so right to frame the debate in the way that he has. I congratulate him on doing so and on his wonderful speech.

So why are we all so angry, so rude, so insecure, so scared, so mean and so judgmental? Obviously, I do not mean anyone in this House. As they say, fish rot from the head and in recent days, I am sad to say, we have seen the most unedifying behaviour on show from those from whom we expect better. But I will not personalise this, as tempting as it is. The issue is no longer about being able to distinguish right from wrong and truth from lies, or to care; the issue is making money and that there is no real loss of status for bad behaviour. This is decline and fall, because the pillars of our civility are being undermined. So, yes, fish rot from the head but the tail is also angry. We have had terrible rows around Brexit and trans, all of which should not be held in the manner they are—the “I’m right, you’re wrong”, and not allowing alternative views to be expressed without shouting, whether on Twitter or in the street. However, I actually believe that most people are good and most people are decent—they are, perhaps, too silent.

Most politicians, despite what is said about us, from councillors to Lords, know right from wrong, believe in public service and have a basic desire to use their time and energy for the betterment of the human race. Sadly, we had the recent example of the appalling murder of David Amess. Only then, the truth surfaced: that he was a brilliant constituency MP and much loved. Good news does not sell, but the media and us— well, apparently, we all prefer hate, aided and abetted by a terrible truth: we feel better if we denigrate others.

So, it is up to all of us to change our own behaviour and demand that those in public, private and civil society set a better example of behaviour. We need trusted mediums so that we can trust the message. We need facts. Truth is not arbitrary, it is actual, and without it, we have nothing. We need our institutions to rediscover their role in rectitude and uprightness. British values, of which we are rightly so proud, are falling, right now, into an abyss. The media, whether that be broadcast, internet-based, newspaper or platform, are all guilty, because arguments and misery sell.

Do not get me wrong, the media are the fourth estate and they have the wonderful ability to save us by exposing the bad, the evil and the guilty in a way that an individual cannot often do, but their modus operandi is sales, and if we look closely at the internet—or not even closely—the same is true. Clickbait is the model for sales of advertising. Sales and clicks are all, and they feed upon this frenzy of a downward cycle, cataloguing the cataclysm, with the emphasis on the negative and the nasty, the banal and the low-grade. Reality TV, 24-hour news, advertising, the competing society, the lack of social mobility and the inequality gap—all exist against the backdrop of a destabilising western democracy and political short-termism.

The deal always was that we behaved well because religions, parents, teachers, the police and our Government said we should, and they set an example of good behaviour and expected us to do the same. If we did, we were rewarded with approbation from our family, friends, teachers, the community or God, depending on our personal proclivity. From our establishments, our institutions and their leaders came a code of social conduct that we all basically understood. There was either a penalty for deviating from the expectation of good behaviour—such as social exclusion, civil or state punishment or excommunication—or there was the simple reward of doing the right thing to fulfil our own expectations of ourselves, stemming from our innate sense of good behaviour.

I am glad the rigidity has gone, but we certainly need to behave better on our own cognisance. I guess the trick will be to work out a new framework, for individuals and institutions—a new social contract that preserves this greater freedom while restraining licence—and all without having to resort to increasingly punitive but ultimately ineffective ways of keeping order, with ever more stringent laws, surveillance, rules, regulations, targets, punishments and curtailment of free speech, all of which achieve so very little in actually changing behaviour. It is time for some sort of radical change to give our young people a wider, broader and more challenging base; to teach them comradeship and bravery and a welcoming of discussion, argument and differing views and beliefs; to give them a new vision of how life can and should be.