Debates between Lord Faulks and Lord Lansley during the 2019 Parliament

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Lansley
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I also pay tribute to the Government, Ministers, officials and lawyers for their speedy response to the amendment put down on Report by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and others. I declare an interest as the chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which regulates 95% of the printed press and its online manifestations.

I shared with many other noble Lords concern about the prospective acquisition of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator by the United Arab Emirates—or at least the acquisition of a substantial part of those important titles. It seems to me that this amendment will make this sort of acquisition much more difficult, if not impossible, as soon as the Bill becomes law.

I agree with other noble Lords that it is most important in framing the necessary secondary legislation that the driving principle behind the amendment, which is to prevent foreign state ownership of newspapers, is reflected appropriately. There is a risk that too tightly drawn definitions might catch wholly benign investors who might have a very modest and non-active interest in newspaper organisations. Sovereign wealth funds have already been mentioned, and the noble Lord has given assurances in this area. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in his citation of Pepper v Hart and its importance, but none the less we will be much reassured by anything the Minister might say. I also ask him to consider the position of banks which may provide a newspaper organisation’s finance. Banks are often part of a consortium, and one part of a consortium may well be a bank with a connection to a foreign state. It is important that that is not captured.

There has been a deliberate choice by those drafting these amendments to change the language of the Enterprise Act 2002, which speaks of “material influence” to provide in the amendment that a relevant merger situation arises where one party acquires “influence” over another. That is plainly a much lower bar. I imagine that the change is designed to protect against somewhat unconvincing assertions by prospective acquirers of an interest in newspapers that editorial independence is protected by some form of editorial board or other Chinese wall. I welcome the Minister’s clarification on this.

The definition of a newspaper in the amendment is,

“a news publication circulating wholly or mainly in the United Kingdom or in a part of the United Kingdom on any periodic basis”.

That seems to exclude news websites or broadcasters. News websites are increasingly a source of news for consumers, many whom have deserted conventional newspaper models. It may be that more power and influence can in fact be obtained there than in the traditional format. I hope that the Minister can continue to reassure the House that these websites are in the Government’s sights, simply on the basis of consistency. I venture to suggest that the Media Bill might provide an appropriate parent for relevant provisions to bring websites into the same category as newspapers. I welcome clarification on that.

The provisions make it clear that the Secretary of State must—I emphasise the word “must”—

“make an order … reversing or preventing … the foreign state newspaper merger situation”.

There is no discretion here. That makes it all the more important that any exemptions should provide that remote or benign interest in newspapers by various emanations of foreign states will not necessarily fall foul of these provisions.

I would like to make it clear that I am entirely in favour of the thinking which animates this amendment, but it is inevitable that when an amendment is drafted, at considerable pace, at a late stage in the progress of a Bill, there may be gaps or ambiguities. Freedom from state interference is of fundamental importance. Our newspaper industry is not in anything like the healthy state it once was, and its vulnerability is what makes newspapers potentially prey to outside investment from foreign states which seek influence. However, important though it is to keep our newspapers free of such influence, we want them to survive and, indeed, to prosper. I hope that the amendment entirely comprehends that aim.

Finally, I simply ask for clarity—the drafting is impressive, but sometimes the meaning is a little hard to tease out—on how the Minister envisages parliamentary involvement in the case of a contentious merger situation.

Lord Lansley Portrait Lord Lansley (Con)
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My Lords, I intervene just briefly. I am very pleased to take the opportunity to follow what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, was just saying because it touches directly on the points I was going to make.

First, I am very grateful for the conversations I have had with the noble Lord and Minister Lopez in his department. I look forward to further debate about the extension to online news services. It will certainly be my intention to table amendments to the Media Bill to enable us to consider how the media public interest test is to be applied in relation to this wider definition of news providers, since the definitions are clearly now out of date—I can say that, having been part of the Puttnam committee on the 2003 legislation.

My noble friend has done an amazing piece of legislative work. I just have to ask, as I did on Report, why it would not have sufficed to have added a new specified consideration to Section 58 of the Enterprise Act 2002, in effect on the need to prevent the acquisition, control of, or influence over newspapers or newspaper periodicals by any defined foreign power. As my noble friend says, we have 16 pages; frankly, we could have done it in about three lines, but clearly there are differences in terms of the bar that has to be crossed and the requirement on the Secretary of State. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, the Secretary of State must do these things, as opposed to the discretion under the current merger regime, but it seems to me that, with a new specified consideration, the current merger regime would provide the necessary powers. For example, it was sufficient for the purpose of meeting the capability to deal with a public health emergency in Section 58 as a specified consideration, or to maintain the stability of our financial system, as specified after the financial crisis, in Section 58. I am not at all clear why we have departed from the same approach in this case. There is a risk that we end up with overlapping and very complex provisions relating to one type of merger situation as opposed to other merger situations, but we will come on to discuss that.

On Report, I raised with my noble friend the question of broadcasting. We can return to that in the Media Bill, but, of course, where broadcasters are concerned, we have the benefit of the relationship to the Ofcom standards code, which does not apply in relation to newspapers. I hope we can revisit that when we come to the Media Bill.