Lord Gilbert: Government Moves Slowly And Allows Platforms To Break Everything

The slow progress on levelling the playing field between news publishers and the tech platforms has led to an influential peer suggesting the Government’s motto is; “Move slowly and allow the platforms to break everything.”

Introducing a Lords debate on the Communications and Digital Committee’s ‘Breaking News? The Future of UK Journalism’, committee chair Lord Gilbert called for the Digital Markets Unit urgently to be given the statutory powers it needs to enforce the new regime. 

“The Government announced its establishment on the day our report was released – surely the least time it has ever taken for a Select Committee recommendation to be accepted,” Lord Gilbert told peers.

“The devil, though, is in the detail. The Digital Markets Unit currently operates as a shadow; it does not yet have the statutory powers it needs to act and it appears that it will not be fully operational until 2023 at the earliest.

“As one publisher told us, whereas Facebook’s motto was; ‘Move fast and break things,’ the Government’s seems to be; ‘Move slowly and allow the platforms to break everything.’”

The News Media Association has repeatedly called for the timetable for giving the DMU statutory powers to be sped up in order to ease the pressure on hard pressed local publishers.  

Responding to calls in the Lords debate from Lord Gilbert and other peers to commit to introducing a mandatory bargaining code for the platforms DCMS Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Lord Parkinson said that the DMU and Ofcom were looking at how a code introduced under the regime would govern the relationships between the platforms and publishers.

Lord Parkinson added: “Noting the committee’s calls for urgency on this matter, which we have also heard from the industry, the Government consultation on the shape of the regime closed at the beginning of this month.

“A summary of responses will be published and taken into consideration as we prepare to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows.”

Lord Gilbert said: “Establishing a mandatory bargaining code is not about special pleading or pretending that the news industry can return to a bygone age. It is about fixing the problems to which the platforms’ untrammelled market powers give rise.”

Viscount Colville of Culross, Crossbench, said: “As the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said, the committee has reported on the huge concerns that these companies are using their monopoly control of the digital advertising supply chain to drain the lifeblood from media companies.

“I am pleased that the DMU has been set up to confront this digital ad monopoly and I, too, urge the Minister urgently to introduce legislation to ensure that it is given statutory powers.

“Likewise, media revenues are suffering from underpayment or lack of payment for the use of their news content on tech platforms. The Government’s response is that a code of conduct is being introduced.

“I urge the Minister to go much further and look at introducing a bargaining code. It must be fair to media companies both large and small, but, if our journalism is to be financially sustainable, it needs to be able to rely on an income stream for the use of its news content by the tech giants.”

Turning to the impact of the BBC on local newspapers, Lord Gilbert also said that “serious thought” was needed as to how the market power of the BBC affects smaller players. “As well as being the most watched and most listened to, in the age of online news the BBC is now the most read source of news in the UK, competing with newspapers, including local newspapers, as never before,” he said.  

“We recommended that the BBC website should include an aggregator section to drive traffic to smaller and local websites.”

Responding to other points made in the debate, Lord Parkinson said the Government was exploring options to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which the News Media Association  has campaigned for.