Lord Black: News Media Sector Needs Action, Not Endless Consultations

The slow Parliamentary process and sheer number of consultations on numerous issues is an intolerable burden on the news media sector, Lord Black of Brentwood has said. Government needs to focus on delivering urgent support to level the playing field between the publishers and the platforms before it is too late.

In a speech to PRCA Fellows in the House of Lords, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee Lord Black spoke of the dangers to the media industry posed by long delays to reform to make the competition regime fit for the digital age.

The vital legislation giving the Digital Markets Unit the tools it needs to enforce the competition regime may not be on the statute book before 2024, he said, and by then “for many newspapers the game will be over – with huge consequences for media plurality, freedom of expression and above all democracy.”  

Lord Black, who is deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group, continued: “Look at the Online Safety Bill – a really important piece of legislation, but dealing with issues which change with massive speed. The Green Paper on it was published in October 2017 – four years ago. We have been through numerous consultations, a White Paper and now a draft Bill which is being scrutinised by a Joint Committee of Parliament on which I sit.

“Our report will then go to the DCMS which will take some time to consider it before a Bill is introduced – probably in the spring. By the time it has gone through all stages in Parliament – and this is detailed and complex legislation – it will likely be early 2023, six years after the Green Paper.”

Lord Black also spoke of the Cairncross Review, established in 2018, followed by a Government response in 2020; the 2019 Furman Review and the Competition and Markets Authority report to which the Government responded in 2020.

“Three reviews – all with the same findings, none of them implemented,” he said. “Consultation – which gives the appearance of action without having actually to introduce legislation – has become a grim hallmark of the media landscape.

“At the moment the industry – including through the News Media Association – is responding to over 30 different consultations on everything from gambling advertising to reform of the Official Secrets Act. For an industry already stretched to financial breaking point, that is an intolerable burden.

“There has to be a better way to ensure our Statute Book can keep up with it – and with the changes it brings about in society. Endless consultation and five year legislative timetables are not fit for purpose in this sphere. Parliament’s business managers – often far removed from the real world – need to grasp that before history damns them with those most chilling words; ‘too late.'”

Lord Black also spoke of past attempts to impose state controls on the press such as those in the aftermath of the Leveson report. He continued: “But the press today faces a wholly different type of press freedom battle from those of the past. It is not one based on the age old campaign to muzzle editorial.

“It is one based on the commercial future of publishers. It is one about survival. And it is therefore one about democracy itself – because unless publishers are commercially successful they will never have the resources to support investigative reporting, foreign news, first class comment, and especially local news which is the lifeblood of all our communities. Our free society is at risk.

“Be in no doubt that the press today – and in particular the regional press – is facing an existential crisis as a result of the impact of digital and the migration of advertising to the platforms.

“Each of us is doing our best to adapt business models to survive. The Telegraph for instance has been extremely successful at building a subscription model, and other publishers have changed in different ways.

“However, we desperately need support from Government – not financial help, but simply in ensuring that the competition regime in which we operate helps not hinders by levelling the playing field between press and the platforms.

“The good news is that the model for how to do so is there. It is contained in the CMA’s brilliant report on the platforms, and even in legislation from Australia which shows how you can produce payment for content – something which would be transformative for the industry, and in particular the regional press.”