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April 6, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:13am

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell on C4, big tech and regulating Fleet Street

By Andrew Kersley

Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell has spoken to Press Gazette about Labour media policy and said the party could not commit to renationalising Channel 4 after its planned privatisation by the current government.

But she added that, given the huge opposition to the move (including from within the Conservative Party), Channel 4 privatisation was unlikely to be completed before the next general election.

In an interview with Press Gazette setting out Labour’s plans for the media, Powell also:

  • Said she favoured a more opinionated BBC to stem the current exodus of senior journalistic talent
  • Called for tighter regulation of print media to create a “level playing field”
  • She was relaxed about the launch of Murdoch-owned TV channel TalkTV and right-of-centre GB News
  • Regulation of big tech needs to go further.

Channel 4 privatisation

Responding to the government’s “ideological” decision to privatise state-owned broadcaster Channel 4 she said: “The vast majority of the Government consultation responses from anybody who’s anybody was against privatisation… It’s not going to make lots of money, so it’s not an economically-sound argument.

“And in selling it off, let’s be honest, the most likely buyer will be a big American super company who will not be interested in content or its ethos or remit for risk-taking and small independently produced content, but just in getting the number four slot on UK channels.”

Asked whether Labour would commit to renationalising the broadcaster in future, she said: “That’s not something we have an agreed position on… and that would depend on the situation at that time.”

She later added: “There’s a huge amount of opposition to this even amongst Tory MPs too so it’s going to be a long and difficult road to pass any legislation let alone find a buyer and then go through Ofcom and competition regulation.

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“I would be surprised if Channel 4 is sold off before the election in any case. We would need to see exactly where things are at by that time, but we are firmly of the view that a not-for-profit, publicly-owned Channel 4 currently offers the tax-payer and the UK creative industries much better value than it being sold off to a foreign company.”

Future of the BBC licence fee

In January, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said that the most recent BBC licence fee would be its last, indicating that the state broadcaster would need to find a new funding model after its current deal expires in 2027.

On the move, Powell said: “I’m a big supporter of the BBC as an important part of the British landscape for the creative industry… and a cornerstone of our wider media economy. It’s absolutely sort of critical for that mixed model of ecosystems that we have in this country.”

She added: “It would significantly diminish our economy… were it not to be there as a universally-funded public service broadcaster.

“The Government really took the wrong kind of side, trying to stir up this whole culture war, and this kind of woke, anti-woke conversation…

“But the starting point is I strongly believe in a universally bought into public service broadcaster as a cornerstone for our world-renowned creative industries that are the envy of the world.”

Regulating the tech giants

Powell said the government’s proposed Online Safety Bill and reported plans for an Australian-style news media bargaining code do not go far enough.

Citing 2003 as the last year with a major piece of technology regulation, she said: “Regulation of the online social media space is long, long overdue.”

She added: “We should be really hammering home that duty of care principal… It’s what Ofcom does so well when it comes to broadcast media. And they need to be able to do that in the same way in the social media space as well.”

On an Australia style news media bargaining code, forcing tech giants to make payments to publishers, she said: “It shouldn’t be as an addendum to the Online Safety Bill, it should be a separate piece of work in its own right because I think once you start going down the route of journalistic content being fairly paid for, it’s not a far step to talk about other areas like music for example. Music artists are not fairly paid at all on sites like Youtube.”

Press regulation

Since the 2011 Leveson Inquiry, the Labour Party has called for the implementation of tighter press regulation.

The party has called for the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would force newspapers not signed up to a Royal Charter regulator (i.e. Impress) to pay both sides’ legal fees in privacy and libel battles, win or lose.

While the law was passed it has yet to be implemented, and is broadly opposed by news publishers as a measure which would make membership of a Royal Charter-backed regulator effectively compulsory.

“Our policy would be broadly looking like what we’ve had in recent manifestos… it would be broadly the same,” said Powell. “If you want to bring in significant regulation around the big tech and social media, and want journalistic content to be fairly paid for…. especially as we’ve already had a long-standing regulation of broadcast in this country, I don’t think it’s sustainable to have a special opt-out for the press industry.”

She added: “If we want to level the playing field when it comes to tech paying fees then it’s only fair to say there has to be a level playing field when it comes to regulation as well.”

Michael Grade and Ofcom

Last week, Conservative peer Michael Grade was confirmed as the next chair of broadcast regulator Ofcom.

A nearly 50-year veteran of the media industry, 79-year-old Grade has previously accused Ofcom staff of being “woke warriors”, expressed support for controversial anti-lockdown campaigner Laurence Fox, suggested that Channel 4 should be privatised and that the BBC licence fee was “regressive”.

He also told MPs on the DCMS Committee that he does not use social media, despite being set to lead the organisation tasked with regulating the tech platforms.

On Grade’s appointment, Powell said: “It has become really obvious hasn’t it that there are all these cronyism appointments across the government… In Grade’s case at least you can see he qualifies for the job, but it definitely feels like a big P political appointment.”

She added: “Cronyism is the watchword for all of these public appointments… Ofcom is about to double in size as it takes on the role of regulating big tech and this is a guy who wouldn’t know what a Tiktok move was if it slapped him in the face.

“He’s very much an analogue regulator for the digital age. If that was a really big part of the job description, which it should have been, that he would have been appointed on that basis.”

Future of local news

Powell has previously described the BBC as the “last local newsroom standing” in parts of the UK as local newspapers are shut down and hollowed out.

Asked what Labour would do to protect local journalism, Powell pointed to the party’s support for payments to publishers but she did not commit to the Corbyn-era policy of giving local publishers charitable status.

Powell said: “You can’t just have one policy for one specific sector without thinking about the wider situation. Brilliant journalism is something that we absolutely want to support, and the government’s role should be about enabling actors to buy and grow in size.”

GB News and TalkTV

On the launch of right-wing news channel GB News and Murdoch-owned TalkTV, Powell said: “I don’t have a problem with there being lots of channels, I think we shouldn’t be in a ‘this is what you’ll watch scenario’.

“Obviously they’re regulated so you can’t be promoting fake news or other things that break the Ofcom licence.”

The Shadow Culture Secretary also suggested that their success indicated a demand for opinion-based content that the BBC should try to cater to.

She added: “What we’re seeing is people do want opinion. I think you can have opinions, you can express opinions, and you shouldn’t be moving the BBC away from having pointed discussions on their platforms, but that has to be in the broader context of providing balanced coverage and impartial news.”

“Some of the big [BBC] presenters are moving into the commercial sector lately. It shows you that the people do want to watch TV and listen to the radio where opinions can be expressed.”

Shadow Culture Secretary brief

On adjusting to becoming Shadow Culture Secretary since her November 2021 appointment, she said: “I underestimated quite what a big brief it was… I hadn’t realised it was nearly a quarter of GDP, it’s bigger than the business department, in terms of economic output which you would have never imagined.

“I was quite surprised when Keir first offered it to me because it wouldn’t be necessarily a job I would have given myself given where my interests have previously lain.”

Picture: Reuters / Hannah Mckay

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