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British Queen celebrates


Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer's speech to the Society of Editors 25th Anniversary Conference

Good afternoon everyone, 

I enjoyed seeing that last session and the questions you might pose of me. I will be touching on those points that you raised, including AI, access to the courts and the Telegraph - but I don’t think I’ll be telling you who should buy it. 

It’s great to be here and have the chance to recognise the absolutely indispensable role that our news media plays in maintaining and enhancing our democracy.

And where better a place for that message.

Since it was formed in 1999, the Society of Editors has consistently campaigned for editorial freedom, the right to report and the public’s right to know.
Today, 25 years after the Society was founded, your mission is even more important than ever.

And although you may represent over 400 individual publications, programmes and websites, the Society of Editors is widely respected as an organisation that speaks with one voice in advocating for press freedom at every opportunity.

As we speak, journalists are on the front line fighting for the public’s right to know in war zones or in places where press freedom is dangerously contested. Places where state control of media is an accepted part of everyday life.

We have seen far too many cases in the past year where journalists who have sought to empower people at home with accurate, timely news gathering have paid the ultimate price.

According to the ICIJ, 99 journalists lost their lives in 2023 - with three quarters of those lives lost in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

In the UK, we’ve seen the Iranian TV journalist Pouria Zeraati stabbed on the streets of London. Fortunately Mr Zeraati returned to broadcasting his show on 5 April and told his audience that “the show must go on.”

Many of you in this room, like me, have been sanctioned by Russia for standing up for our principles. And we must continue to do it.

Last week an eminent, well respected titan of the industry was asked by a House of Lords committee how Government could help the industry.

He gave the question short shrift.

Government, he said ‘should stay the hell out of it. We are not on your side.  You are not on our side. I am a Jeffersonian. Government should concentrate on what only Government can do,’ he said.

And, in principle, of course, that’s right.  

There is nothing more democratic than outstanding journalism.

The media is there to scrutinise, to challenge and to investigate. Often politicians like us.  And so it is clear that there can be no role for the Government in this, or indeed saying how this should be done. 

Moreover, if you are a conservative, personal responsibility, free markets and limited regulation are cornerstones of your belief. Interfering in industry is absolutely not.

But to suggest that the Government should have no role in protecting free speech is overly simplistic. 

The government has a role in setting frameworks to enable a free press to survive.

Indeed recently there have been many calls by industry itself on the Government to stand up, stand firm, take action, to protect our free press from the interference or dominance of others.  

And, quite rightly, we have listened. 

I wanted to share just three recent examples of where the Govt has rightly stepped up to protect your freedoms. 

First, on the ownership of newspapers. 

Secondly, where wealth is used to silence individual voices.

And thirdly, where dominant market forces, namely big tech, are controlling both platform and content to the detriment of media plurality.  

As the Secretary of State, I’ve always been on the side of press freedom. I spoke about it shortly after my appointment and at every stage I’ve had the opportunity to support it, I have. And that’s clear from the three examples I’m going to set out. 

So I’ll start with the first of those.

The ownership of British newspapers which play a unique role in our democracy.
As everyone in this room knows, a situation emerged late last year whereby a foreign state was taking steps to purchase one of our most iconic titles. 

This is a matter that I have been intimately involved in at every twist and turn. 

Now, when the possibility emerged, Fraser Nelson said that ‘if governments start to own newspapers, whether they’re British governments, European governments or an Arab government, you end up with press freedom compromised fatally’.

Many others including the eminent journalist I referred to expressed similar sentiments. 

Now what’s important to remember is that the Government already had stepped in many years ago to this space and set a framework. The existing law already gave the Secretary of State for Culture the power to review the purchase of a newspaper and intervene when accuracy or freedom of expression were under threat. 

Those powers, as the Secretary of State for Culture had, were sensible, they were appropriate and they were effective.

Indeed in this case I had concerns about the potential impact of this deal on free expression and accurate presentation of news. 

That’s why I issued a Public Interest Intervention Notice 

But there were a number of features about those powers, which gave rise to real fears by Parliament in both houses and indeed, as I’ve said, many journalists.Their fear was that power didn’t give them the certainty that they needed. 

For the powers set out in existing legislation are not absolute, but discretionary. They depend on the determination of the evidence in a particular case and do not require any foreign state ownership, influence or control over a newspaper to be blocked. They are quasi-judicial and not political. And involve a long process of investigation and scrutiny and that obviously leads to uncertainty for a publication. 

And so, for many, that framework was not certain enough. 

The Government quite rightly revised this framework and legislated to put this matter beyond doubt. Because the law indeed did need to be strengthened.  Strengthened to stop it being exploited in a way that would undermine one of the cornerstones of our country.

As a result of our changes the Bill now bans absolutely any foreign state ownership, control or influence over the newspaper enterprise.

As you may know earlier today the prospective buyers have formally confirmed to me their intention to sell their option over Telegraph. And so today I have granted them the flexibility and regulatory space to begin preparations for a sale, which absent that consent they would not have had.

The sale process will be run by RedBird IMI alone and I will not be engaging with or approving any prospective buyers, but of course, I will monitor the outcome with a view to taking any further regulatory action as required under the Enterprise Act.

Secondly, and as important as setting a framework for foreign state ownership of an entire paper, is the importance of setting a framework to defend the rights of individual journalists.

No journalist in this country should encounter the awful situation of arriving at their desk one day, only to be told that if they don’t walk back from their investigation, they will be sued and forced to defend themselves against the most expensive lawyers money can buy.

But we have seen high profile cases of exactly that happening and I’ve met with journalists like Catherine Belton - the author of Putin’s People - who have come up against individuals who seek to bend the justice system to suit their needs and stymy free speech in the process.

Simply, it’s plain wrong.

Individuals should not be able to block the truth because their bank balance allows them to force journalists into court.

That’s why I’ve made it a priority to clamp down on these strategic lawsuits, or SLAPPs and am working with colleagues across Government and many of you in this room to ensure we take the best approach in outlawing these abuses of our legal system.

At the same time, the SLAPPs Taskforce is taking action here and now to protect journalists and judges so they can spot a SLAPP and know what to do when faced with one.

The job is not done yet, but we will get there.

And whilst I am on the topic of justice, and as an aside. The government has a role here too … because we also know that in investigating and holding others to account, you need access to court hearings.  

As the Courts Minister in 2018 I worked closely with the media industry to draw up guidance to be used in courts in order to allow greater access. 

And it is because of that collaboration that we have been able to really open up our courts and make the system more transparent.

In recent years we’ve facilitated the live-streaming of proceedings at the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and the Competition Appeal Tribunal, as well as sentencing remarks in the Crown Court.

We’ve also legislated to allow the media and public to request access to remotely observe any open court and tribunal hearing across England and Wales.

It’s evidence of the role the Government can play in ensuring justice for all sits alongside the freedom of the press to report on it.

And, thirdly and finally, as Big Tech becomes more and more dominant it is right that we work closely with industry to address concerns the sector has about the relationship between Big Tech and news publications.

We’ve done that through the Media Bill and through the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

In its submissions to the House of Lords inquiry into the future of the press, the Daily Mail group said of the measures in the Digital Markets Bill.

These ‘should go a long way to address the anti-competitive practices of the tech platforms, by ending self-preferencing in digital ad auctions, ensuring transparency of algorithms and delivering fair payment for the use of news content.’

Calling it a ground-breaking piece of legislation, the CMA set out some of the details of what that regime will look like in January.

Once introduced, that pro-competitive regime should help to address the far-reaching powers of the biggest tech firms while rebalancing the relationship between major platforms and those who rely on them, including publishers.

When it comes to Artificial Intelligence and other technologies of the future, we will continue to work closely with all of you to understand the risks and seize the opportunities to increase productivity 

We are discussing with a group of key industry representatives some of the key issues around generative AI, so many of which echo those issues about monetisation I’ve already mentioned.

We are hosting a working group which is discussing issues like fair remuneration and recognition for AI developers’ using news content, the loss of control over news publisher content presented on AI-generated news-related services, and diversion of traffic and advertising revenue away from news publisher websites.

These are challenges that exist right across the globe, but our intention is to be at the forefront of addressing them, with all of you.

And so, to conclude, we do not wish to interfere but to strengthen. We want to get involved in only what needs to be done…

Because, contrary to what Andrew Neill says and thinks -

Whilst you may not always be on our side, we are on yours, we have your back. Democracy needs us both.  

And whilst Jefferson said ‘were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Govt without newspapers or newspapers without a Govt, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.’ 

The reality is that whilst he may prefer the latter, that would obviously be absurd and fortunately we don’t have that binary choice.

So I want you to know that this Conservative Government will always stand on the side of newspapers and will always ensure that the press is free to speak the truth. Photo by Richard Townshend, Wikimedia commons.