The Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Morgan of Cotes) (Con)
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for this afternoon’s debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on bringing this important issue before the House. Given how popular it has been and the expertise on all sides, I am sorry in many ways that this has been a short debate, but I am sure that we will return to these issues over the forthcoming months. I want to thank all those who have spoken. I have to fulfil the requirements of delivering my maiden speech as well as trying to do justice to some of the contributions made this afternoon. I will not get the image of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and his leather trousers out of my mind for some time.
First, I begin by formally thanking all noble Lords for their warm welcome since my introduction, particularly Black Rod and her staff, the doorkeepers and all the other staff, including the security and police officers who have, quite literally, pointed me in the right direction when it was clear that I had become rather lost in this red-carpeted end of the Palace. I would also like to thank my noble friends Lady Evans of Bowes Park, the Chief Whip, Lord O’Shaughnessy, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen and Lady Jenkin of Kennington, and my DCMS colleague and noble friend Lady Barran among many others for their advice and support in recent weeks. I must also thank my sponsors: my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who—in spite of the provocations from some of my former colleagues—was a fabulously calm and unflappable Chief Whip when I was a very junior Whip in the other place, and my noble friend Lady Verma, who has been a great ally in my adopted home of Leicester and Leicestershire and was a very talented Minister.
The last few years in UK politics have been both challenging and fascinating for reasons which are well rehearsed. I loved being a constituency Member of Parliament, but there came a time last year when my satisfaction from being in that role and my pride in being an MP and a Minister were outweighed by my dismay at the continuing parliamentary impasse and the constant online abuse and threats, and I concluded that a fresh start was needed for me, my family and my constituency. I had not envisaged that this fresh start might actually involve becoming a Member of this House quite so quickly, but it is an enormous privilege to be here. As my noble friend Lord Black mentioned, I shortly expect to succeed in my attempt to leave the Government and join colleagues on the Back Benches, where I hope I will have the chance to speak more freely about interests I have in character education, financial services—having served two years as chair of the Treasury Select Committee in the other place—the online harms agenda, digital and tech, and women and equalities issues, as well as having a greater presence in the Morgan home, which my family say that they want. I am not sure that I will necessarily leave behind a note, but I can assure my noble friend Lord Black that I shall certainly leave behind some handover instructions.
I turn to the subject of this debate. The Cairncross Review vividly outlined the threat to high-quality journalism in this country. As we have heard, there are now around 6,000 fewer journalists than there were roughly a decade ago. Print circulation of daily national papers fell from 11.5 million in 2008 to 5.8 million in 2018 and, in this same period, the circulation for local newspapers has also halved. The main driver is a rapid change in how we consume content. The majority of people now read news online, including 91% of 18 to 24 year-olds. As this shift takes place, publishers have faced significant challenges in creating sustainable online business models. This combination of market conditions threatens to undermine the future financial sustainability of journalism and should concern us all, as we have heard on all sides of this Chamber today. There has been universal agreement on the importance of local journalism in particular, but also high-quality public interest journalism from everyone.
What Dame Frances termed public interest journalism —investigative and democracy reporting—holds the powerful to account and is an essential component of our democracy. It helps us to shine a light on important issues—in communities, in courtrooms, in council chambers and in this Chamber—so its sustainability is very important to all of us, including the Government. Since the publication of the review, the Government have engaged widely on its findings and recommendations. Discussions have been held with representatives of the news industry, including: the News Media Association, the Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists; a number of online platforms, including Google, Facebook and Twitter; the BBC; and the regulators, including the CMA, Ofcom, IPSO, the Charity Commission and many more. Last week, the Government published our initial response.
As has already been referred to, the Government support the majority of Dame Frances’s recommendations. In fact, we supported all the recommendations apart from one: the proposal to establish an institute for public interest news. Some noble Lords referred to this as the Government having rejected that recommendation—as ever, there is always something in the drafting—but I think the better way to look at it is that the Government have decided that it is not for the Government to take that recommendation forward. There may well be a very good argument for an institute for public interest news but, as ever with the media side of my brief, there is a decision to be taken about exactly what the Government’s role is in that. It may well be that there is another body or another way to take forward that particular recommendation.
The Government have already started to take forward some of the other interventions proposed in the review. We have worked with Nesta to deliver a £2 million pilot innovation fund, which launched in October. It seeks to invest in new technological prototypes, start-ups and innovative business models to explore new ways of sustaining the industry in this changing landscape. Last week, the Government also formally committed to extend the business rate discount for local newspapers until 2025, as part of their efforts to support local and regional journalism. The Chancellor will consider the case for a range of potential tax incentives to support the news publishing industry this year, including policy options on VAT, notwithstanding recent litigation in this area. I note those, including the noble Baroness opposite, who have appealed for VAT relief to be extended to all digital publications. Winning arguments about extending reliefs is challenging with the Treasury at the best of times, but I am sure that this will be an ongoing debate. In answer to my noble friend Lord Black, there will of course be a Budget in March and any changes in relation to tax would be made at such a fiscal event.
The Government are committed to taking forward work on the recommendation to create codes of conduct to rebalance and redefine the relationships between news publishers and online platforms, in alignment with wider work on digital regulation. We think that this will help to ensure that journalists in the UK are fairly treated and rewarded for their content. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, mentioned this in her opening remarks. We are working on the best way to take forward and enforce those codes and we will obviously keep the House updated. She and other noble Lords also mentioned the fact that there are a number of different reviews and publications in this space. As she set out, there are complex issues in this whole area, which need to be addressed in a systemic way. My noble friend Lord Black said that there were too many initiatives; he thought that we should identify some strategic issues. I do not disagree with that, but we have to think about how we do it. There are issues such as online advertising where it is right for the Competition and Markets Authority—which will publish its final report in July this year—to take that forward. I assure the House that, where it recommends action, the Government will act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and I have already discussed the online harms work, on which we hope very much to make further announcements very shortly. Other noble Lords mentioned the media literacy work that is needed; it will be part of the online harms response. I entirely accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said about media literacy being needed for all ages; I often find that it is younger people who are perhaps looking at the news with a more sceptical eye than some of us, who might need to be reminded about sources of news and the different motivations of those writing articles. There will be further announcements on that in the work on online harms.
My noble friend Lord Attlee asked about Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. He will know, I am sure, that we included in the Conservative party manifesto a commitment to repeal Section 40, and we are looking for a suitable legislative vehicle to do that. He also asked about the Foreign Office and foreign travel advice. I assure him that any risks or appalling incidents, murders or attacks affecting journalists are part of the way in which the Foreign Office makes decisions about travel advice to those who are travelling overseas.
My noble friend Lord Holmes talked about internships and diversity, both of which are important issues. They are perhaps not necessarily for this particular review, but he is right to say that thinking about how we get young future talent from diverse backgrounds and perspectives into our local, and indeed national, media goes to the heart of the sustainability of that journalism. The Government will certainly take away those points.
The Cairncross Review also outlined how news publishers are increasingly reliant on the online advertising market, and the threat this poses to the future sustainability of journalism. We have committed to reviewing how online advertising is regulated. The Government will be commissioning work, and there will also be work by the Competition and Markets Authority. We published a call for evidence last week, seeking views on the challenges, as well as the benefits, that the rise of online advertising has brought for people and businesses, including news publishers.
There is a great deal of common ground between the recommendations made by Dame Frances and this Government’s wider programme of work to address the challenges raised by digital products and services. As we have heard, this includes the findings of the Furman report on digital competition and the forthcoming legislation to follow up the online harms White Paper. The Government will take account of all the work—I agree with the point made that we need a co-ordinated and coherent approach, but we also need to make progress.
There are many substantial recommendations in the review and, as a Government, we are committed to taking this work forward. I think we all agree that only high-quality journalism can hold the powerful to account and shine a light on society’s important issues. We are committed to getting this work right, so that future generations can be inspired and engaged by a free and vibrant press. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate and I have no doubt that this House will return to these issues in the near future.