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Harriet Harman QC MP, Labour's Deputy Leader and Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, in a speech at the Westminster Media Forum today said:
- 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 getting their new 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 New 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 –
• agree on a methodology for how ownership is measured
• agree the mechanisms for enforcing – for example, divesting
• and agree on a strong Ofcom, which must be powerful in practice as well as on paper.
The issue is not just ownership across newspapers, broadcasting and other media but also how we address monopolistic ownership within those sectors.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE LEVESON INQUIRY
The Leveson Inquiry is of enormous importance. Lord Justice Leveson has presided over a fearless and forensic process, and an emotional one. It has been a decisive moment for free speech, with victims often heard for the first time – and even before they've finished hearing the evidence and started writing their report, the Leveson Inquiry is emphatically demonstrating the need for change.
The challenge for Leveson - and for all of us - is that this should be change which commands as great a consensus as possible, which is positive and enduring.
No-one can fail to recognise the financial pressures piling onto newspapers – financial pressures which have intensified competition between them and left some feeling that they are fighting for their lives – but that cannot be any justification for intrusion and illegality.
Look at what happened to Charlotte Church. Here was a child with a huge talent. But for the News of the World the most important thing was to sell stories. No information - not the most intimate, not the most private and not the most painful personal and family issues – was off limits. In their pursuit of profits they dehumanised Charlotte Church and her mother. To the News of the World they were not a child and her mother but nothing more than commodities to sell more papers. The courage and strength she has shown in coming to the Inquiry to say how that felt is remarkable.
You can only admire, too, the strength of Bob and Sally Dowler. What could be worse than to lose a beloved daughter to murder? But to the News of the World they were not grieving parents deserving the greatest sympathy; they were nothing more than commodities to sell papers. For the Dowlers to come to the Leveson inquiry and – in public – relive those grim days and weeks in the full glare of the press that had so abused them was hugely courageous.
PRINCIPLES FOR REFORM
There is much heat and justifiable emotion around the debate about the future of press standards, but there is an important need for the response from politicians and the press to be measured.
This is not the time for either the press or politicians to settle old scores or exact revenge for the past. Both sides must leave their baggage behind.
In my role as Shadow Culture and Media Secretary I want to be clear that Labour’s starting point will be a commitment to defend the freedom of the press.
Because the press are now in the dock, when they make the case for freedom of the press, it looks like special pleading from a vested interest. But those of us who are politicians in a democracy should be the first to understand that politics cannot operate in a democracy without a free and fearless press. We don’t want a cowed press.
I also think that, with this, instead of doing things the usual way - where Government and opposition each come up with their own proposals – we need to do things differently.
I think newspaper editors should get together and came forward with their proposals and I challenge them to do that. It would be better for them to frame the solution rather than have one imposed on them. We have had extensive general discussions, it’s now time for the editors to propose a new system for press complaints and which is not just rhetoric.
A system that delivers on the principles the editors say they actually want.
• A system that is independent – independent of political interference but also independent of serving editors, who cannot be allowed to go on marking their own homework.
• A system that is citizen centric – seeking redress must be accessible and straightforward for all, and not available only to the rich.
• And a system that applies to all newspapers.
The proposal being worked up by Lord Hunt, chair of the Press Complaints Commission, does not, as we currently understand it, do that.
It leaves unchanged the basic problem with the current system: that rather than applying to all as a matter of course, it still requires newspapers to opt in. After all the evidence that has come before the Leveson inquiry, the status quo is not an option. We cannot go on with business as usual.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A FREE DEBATE – CONCLUSION
As I said at the beginning of my speech today, this is a critical time for communications and the media.
The future of our economy needs to harvest the potential of our world class creative industries.
The future of our democracy requires an open debate about press and media reform.
It cannot be a debate where the media dictate what we are allowed to discuss and propose about their future.
We owe it to the proud tradition of the British press; we owe it to those, like Charlotte Church and the Dowlers, who have been the victims of hacking and intrusion who have come forward to tell their stories; and we owe it to the British people, who have been disgusted by the excesses and corruption, to debate freely and reform judiciously.