Westminster Media Forum
6th March 2012
Check against delivery.
Last week started with Sue Akers' dramatic assertions at the Leveson inquiry. Next we had the resignation of James Murdoch as Chairman of News International. The week then concluded with the Prime Minister having to come clean about his relationship with a former police horse.
The only normal thing about this story was that the horse died of natural causes- or so we're led to believe.
Although the story about the horse was surreal, these are incredibly serious times for the relationship between the press, politics and the police and a very important time when it comes to public policy in the broader area of communications.
COMMUNICATIONS GREEN PAPER
This conference was called to examine the Communications Green Paper - but as we all know the Government has delayed it a number of times.
And with all that's been going on I can't say I blame them.
Normally, a Comms Green Paper would be of interest only to a small group of specialists.
At the time this Green Paper was first mooted, the sense was that it would herald a niche bill aiming at aiding growth through infrastructure and technological changes.
But now it is clear the Comms Bill will need to be much more than that. It will deal with the outcome of Leveson – both on press standards and ownership – and it will need to reflect the findings of the Ofcom review.
The next Comms Act will have huge significance. This is the moment at which media and communications policy moves from a technical discussion among a small group of experts to centre stage of the national debate on politics, culture and the economy.
It was a marginal political issue- it is now central.
RAPID CHANGES IN TECHNOLOGY
Communication and media policy is going to affect everyone at a time when everything is changing:
· Broadband is being rolled out and used by all businesses and most homes.
· The way we watch TV is being transformed. Catch-up TV is now routine and within a few years the TV in most people's homes will be connected to the internet. This brings obvious benefits but it will require us to tackle new problems like how we help parents protect children from adult material.
· Technology has changed how news is produced, gathered and transmitted- the news of the riots in my constituency this summer was gathered through people shooting videos on their phones.
· There's a development of remotely produced national and indeed local news.
· The ecology and economics of the media is also changing. Newspaper readership is collapsing with people getting their news online; the number of TV channels has gone from five terrestrial ones to over 300 satellite ones and soon there will be digital switchover.
Ten years ago, we couldn't foresee Facebook, You Tube or Twitter. The 2003 Communications Act made no use of the word ‘internet’. And changes lie ahead that, as yet, we have no idea about.
This is an enormous challenge to policy-makers. While technological change is rapid, democracy has to take its time – to make proposals, to consult on them, to go through all the processes of legislation.
And because technology is fast changing and legislation is slow-moving, it is critical that the regulatory framework is flexible. Policy makers aren't clairvoyant – but we must do what we can to ensure our regulatory framework takes account not just of what we know, but also of known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
JOBS AND GROWTH IN THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES
But what we do know and what should remain the case is that the media and the creative industries are an important sector for jobs and growth in this country and the Green Paper and the Comms Bill need to support that.
I'm working closely with Ed Balls, Chuka Umunna and Stephen Twigg to ensure that the creative industries are at the heart of our whole agenda for business and the economy for the future.
It is already clear that for this sector there needs to be a strategy to address access to finance, education and training which ensures young people have the right skills to go into the creative sector, a regional strategy which ensures that growth in the creative industries is not confined to London and strong support for exports. And also copyright protection. We need a system of regulation which strikes the right balance between technology companies, content users and content owners.
We have heard today from the BPI and Google and I hear both sides of the argument. We need a system of regulation which supports innovation and new business models and also supports creators and respects copyright. The Digital Economy Act was passed with cross party support and we are urging the government to enact it to help underpin new jobs and growth in our creative industries.
PREVENTING MEDIA MONOPOLY
So, while the media situation is fast-changing, that must not be an excuse not to take action. We’ve got an opportunity to take action to deal with difficult, historical problems which have been left unaddressed for too long.
Problems of too much newspaper power in the hands of one man and a lack of redress where journalistic professional standards are breached.
The malpractice and illegality which has been exposed by the Leveson inquiry was never just "one rogue reporter" or a few bent policemen. It is a symptom of an underlying structural problem.
The accumulation of too much power led to a sense of invincibility and impunity. Murdoch owns too many newspapers and had it not been for the hacking scandal the Government would have waived through his bid for the whole of BSkyB. Both Ofcom and Leveson are looking at ownership. It is clear that there needs to be change.
Last week I was asked whether I was shocked by Sue Akers’ revelations. And the sad truth is, far from it. It just confirmed what I had always believed.
PREVIOUS OBSTACLES TO CHANGE
People have also said, "But you were in government for 13 years - why didn't you do something about it? You were too close weren’t you?"
The answer to that lies in what happened before 1992. We put in our 1992 manifesto what we believed was necessary: that we should ‘establish an urgent inquiry’ by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into media ownership, and – if the press failed to deal with abuses of individuals’ privacy – to implement the statutory protections recommended by the Calcutt report.
Because we were committed to tackling media monopoly and introducing a robust press complaints system, the Murdoch press was determined to stop us getting into government and not a day went by without on every issue, his papers battering us.
So as we approached 1997, we – in Tony Blair’s words in his famous ‘feral beasts’ speech – turned to ‘courting, assuaging and persuading the media... after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative’.
When we were in government, it was the case that many senior figures did become too close to News International and Murdoch.
It is worth noting that despite Murdoch’s objections, we supported the BBC and established Ofcom. But we didn’t prevent Murdoch’s growing monopoly and we didn’t deal with the failure of redress of those who have complaints against the press.
And so things went on until the Milly Dowler revelations shocked and disgusted the British people, leading to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry and creating an opportunity for long overdue change. We must not squander that opportunity.
THE OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE
To address the problem of too great a concentration of ownership, there needs to be agreement on:
· a trigger for intervention - action cannot be confined just to an event such as a takeover
· the maximum percentage of ownership permitted
· a methodology for how ownership is measured
· the mechanisms for enforcing – for example, divesting
· and on a strong Ofcom, which must be powerful in practice as well as on paper.