All 3 Baroness Featherstone contributions to the Media Bill 2023-24

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Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
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.

Media Bill

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
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.

Media Bill

Baroness Featherstone Excerpts
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.