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August 9, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:12am

Truss vs Sunak: What are the Conservative leadership contenders’ plans for media?

By Bron Maher

The fight to be Britain’s next prime minister has come down to a former newspaper editor versus a scholar of the media.

Rishi Sunak – former editor of his school paper – and Liz Truss – holder of a media studies GCSE – are vying for leadership of the Conservative Party.

Press Gazette took a look at the two candidates’ public statements on the media and the major policy questions facing journalism in the UK.

We found that amid agreement on several issues – among them Section 40 and the Digital Markets Unit – the two differ on the future of the BBC and the licence fee.

Truss, Sunak and the media: background

As far as journalistic experience goes, Sunak was reportedly editor of Winchester College’s school newspaper. His school years also produced his other notable journalism-related biographical note: a close friendship with James Forsyth, the political editor of The Spectator.

The Times reported he was best man at Forsyth’s wedding to Allegra Stratton, the former Newsnight and ITV News political journalist who would ultimately join (then resign from) the Johnson administration.

For her part, Truss disclosed in a 2011 tweet that she did a media studies GCSE. In another tweet the next year the odds-on favourite to be Conservative leader said she was “brought up as a Guardian reader”. (She was raised in a Labour household.)

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Truss has also had an unfavourable run-in with Lord Faulks, QC, the chair of press regulator IPSO. In 2016 Faulks – who was not yet leading IPSO – resigned from his position as justice minister in the Conservative government after new Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Truss lord chancellor.

Faulks said “I have nothing against Ms Truss personally, but is she going to have the clout to be able to stand up to the prime minister when necessary, on behalf of the judges?” and “I fear this could be damaging to the justice system.”

Truss vs Sunak on: The BBC licence fee

The Financial Times reported in January that Sunak “led a cabinet pushback” against Nadine Dorries’ announcement that she wanted a review of the licence fee’s suitability by the time of the next BBC charter renewal in 2027. According to the newspaper, “Sunak had told Dorries there had not been proper cabinet discussion on whether the licence fee should ultimately be replaced”.

Dorries herself appeared to confirm this in an article for Mail+ in July, saying: “Rishi and the Treasury refused to sign off the review and blocked it for many months.”

But if Sunak had cold feet on abolishing the licence fee in January, they seem to have warmed up now Truss has them to the fire: Politico’s London Playbook reported in July that he indicated to a Common Sense Conservatives husting “he’d be willing to scrap the BBC licence fee in future”.

Liz Truss, meanwhile, told Mail+ this month she would look into decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee. The January FT article about Sunak’s licence fee hesitancy also reported that “Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, backed Dorries but said it was vital that the BBC World Service had generous funding to counter disinformation from countries including Russia and China”.

[Read more: Tax, rather than adverts or subscriptions, should fund BBC says House of Lords]

Taxing big tech to fund news

Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have endorsed proposals for the UK to bring in an Australia-style news bargaining code that would force tech companies to pay news publishers for use of their content.

Sunak wrote in a letter to the News Media Association last month: “I would take forward the promised Digital Markets legislation this autumn, including measures to ensure fair terms between publishers and platforms.” The former chancellor emphasised he had “pushed for the creation of the Digital Markets Unit and for it to be put on a statutory footing with real teeth”, and also noted he had zero-rated VAT on digital publications.

Current government proposals for the Digital Markets Unit would see the body, sitting within the Competition and Markets Authority, given “powers to resolve pricing disputes so that news providers are paid fairly for their online content”.

Truss told the Eastern Daily Press she would match Sunak’s commitments. Previously, in August 2018 when she was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Truss criticised a Labour proposal to tax big tech to fund “public interest” journalism, saying the “Internet has turbocharged sharing of ideas and political involvement. Crazy to tax the new to prop up the status quo.”

In January 2020, though, the then-International Trade Secretary defended Sajid Javid’s proposals to introduce a digital services tax in the face of American government protests. (That tax was not aimed specifically at bringing money back to news providers, however.)

[Read more: UK reveals plans to force Google and Meta to pay for news]

Section 40

In the same letter to the NMA Sunak also pledged to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which requires news publishers to sign up to a Leveson-compliant press regulator or else be forced to pay both sides’ costs should they be taken to court. (At present there is only one Leveson-compliant regulator, Impress, and the majority of large publishers are signed up with the non-compliant IPSO.)

Of the legislation, which was enacted by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, Sunak wrote: “It’s vital that we remove this measure which seeks to coerce the press and stifle free speech ahead of the next General Election.”

Again, Truss matched Sunak’s pledge on Section 40 in her interview with the Eastern Daily Press. Truss had been a junior minister in the Cameron administration when it put the legislation on the books, but was later a senior member of the Johnson government when it announced its intention to repeal Section 40 in the Queen’s Speech this year.

[Read more: Conservatives repeat pledge to scrap Section 40 cost penalties on newspapers]

Channel 4 privatisation

Both Truss and Sunak have spoken in favour of privatising Channel 4 – albeit not with the same force.

Bloomberg reported late last month that Truss had told reporters: “Where possible, it’s best to have companies operating in the private sector rather than the public sector. I will look in detail at the business case on Channel 4.”

And a Sunak spokesperson told The Guardian that “Rishi will take forward Channel 4’s privatisation. Channel 4 is a crucial part of British broadcasting and supports our brilliant creative industries, but a lot has changed since the 1980s when it was set up to provide viewers with more choice”.

[Read more: Nadine Dorries says Channel 4’s remit to back independent media is ‘done’]

Online Safety Bill

Speaking with The Spectator last month, both candidates said they favoured regulation of the web for children’s wellbeing but with the caveat that they wanted to preserve free speech – although neither said quite how they would do it.

Sunak said: “I think the challenge we’ve got, and that’s why I’m glad the government’s paused the bill so we can refine our approach here, that the challenge is whether it strays into the territory of suppressing free speech.”

Pushed on whether that meant he would scrap the section requiring platforms to set out how they would deal with “legal but harmful” content, he said: “I would want to spend some time as prime minister going over and making sure that we’re getting that bit exactly right.”

Similarly, Truss told The Spectator: “We need to make sure that those without the decision-making capabilities, particularly the under-18s, are protected from harmful content. But I think where you have adults talking to each other, it is important that we don’t have censorship. So it is about getting the balance right.”

[Read more: Online Safety Bill introduced to Parliament, but industry seeks further protections for journalism]

SLAPPs

As Foreign Secretary, Truss in March reportedly asked government lawyers to “find literally any way” to crack down on strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) – litigation launched by the wealthy in a bid to silence journalists or others who are deemed critics. It is unclear whether this request specifically bore fruit, but Justice Secretary Dominic Raab did set out a series of measures to allow courts to throw out SLAPPs a few months later.

Sunak does not appear to have spoken publicly on SLAPPs.

[Read more: UK is SLAPP tourism capital of Europe but scale of ‘iceberg problem’ not fully known]

Press Gazette has approached the teams of both candidates for additional information on each of the above topics.

Identifying suspects before they are charged

Rishi Sunak has made some comments in Parliament indicating he opposes media providing identifying information about suspects before they have been charged by police.

He spoke on the matter in December 2016 during a debate on the Henriques Report into Operation Midland, which investigated false allegations of historic child abuse relating to prominent people. One of those investigated was Lord Leon Brittan, who lived in what would become Sunak’s constituency. Brittan’s widow was one of Sunak’s constituents.

Sunak told the Commons: “There were serious shortcomings in the way that the Metropolitan police interacted with the media. Our laws rightly preserve the anonymity of the accuser for sexual offences. Yet for the accused, our protections have repeatedly proved inadequate.

“Current police practice of confirming to the media the age and location of suspects is clearly incompatible with the police policy that suspects should maintain their anonymity until charged. For Leon, whose long years of public service made him easily identifiable, anonymity was lost well before it should have been, with devastating consequences.”

What have they said in Parliament about specific news media?

The BBC
  • “There is, quite simply, a pack of lies being produced on Russian state media. [John Whittingdale MP] is also right about the vital importance of the BBC World Service and other services from which the Russian people can hear a more balanced and truthful version of events.” (Liz Truss, February 2022)
  • “We are also working on expanding our soft power, whether it is through the BBC or other outlets, to get the truth across to the people of Russia.” (Liz Truss, March 2022)
The Guardian
  • “There was a despicable cartoon about the Home Secretary [Priti Patel] in the weekend’s Guardian. She is doing a brilliant job—fighting crime, getting our new immigration system in place—and it is the hypocrisy of those on the left that, when it is not a woman they agree with, they do everything they can to undermine her.” (Liz Truss, March 2020)
The Observer
  • The Observer has made unsubstantiated allegations that employees of the [Education] Department contribute to or control the @toryeducation Twitter feed. Despite repeated requests for evidence to substantiate these allegations (from the Permanent Secretary, from the Cabinet Secretary, and from the Secretary of State), no evidence has been provided.” (Liz Truss, April 2013)
RT
  • “We are looking at what can be done with RT, but if we ban RT in the United Kingdom, that is likely to lead to channels such as the BBC being banned in Russia.” (Liz Truss, February 2022)
The Times

“I congratulate my hon. Friend on his fantastic campaign, and I congratulate The Times on raising this vital issue. I, too, want hedgehogs to have a very happy Christmas, and I am very willing to meet my hon. Friend and members of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to discuss what we can do to ensure that we have a good population of hedgehogs in the future.” (Liz Truss, December 2015)

Pictures: Left – Reuters/Peter Cziborra; Right – Reuters/Peter Nicholls

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