There's still time for Lucy Frazer to secure her legacy

Snoddy: There’s still time for Lucy Frazer to secure her legacy
(Credit: Richard Townshend/Wikimedia Commons)

With the election now likely to be in November, some important pending legislations that could benefit the media industry still stand a chance.

After Nadine Dorries established a new low for culture secretaries, the bar was set in a very comfortable place for her successors.

Michelle Donelan may not have been around for long, but she did what she promised to do — listen to the media industry and the evidence before pushing ahead with the dangerous, madcap Dorries scheme to privatise Channel 4.

Donelan will therefore be remembered as the culture secretary who blocked the privatisation, even though she insisted on given the channel a number of new freedoms that it had not asked for and did not necessarily want.

Shopping list

Now it looks as if Lucy Frazer could have an even better legacy when she leaves, because of the string of important legislative matters that could benefit the media in her in-tray or that of her cabinet colleagues.

It was therefore important to see prime minister Rishi Sunak ruling out an immediate election — with November apparently now the preferred date.

An early election might have dished important bills containing significant matters for the media now going through the parliamentary process. When you call an election, a lot of pending legislation is trampled underfoot.

Frazer set out her shopping list last week at the 25th-anniversary conference of the Society of Editors, engaging along the way in a friendly spat with veteran political commentator Andrew Neil.

Neil had been asked earlier by a House of Lords committee how the government could help the media industry and the chairman of The Spectator had replied grandly that the government “should stay the hell out of it”.

Frazer begged to differ and admonished Neil for being “overly simplistic”, going on to set out areas where the government was taking action “in setting frameworks to enable a free press to survive”.

Political intervention

The first was surely right up Neil’s street, when Frazer issued a public intervention notice that led to the blocking of the purchase of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator by a consortium backed by the United Arab Emirates.

The powers in existing legislation are discretionary, so Frazer said she plans to strengthen the law to have an absolute ban on any foreign state owning, controlling or influencing British newspaper enterprises.

A tick for the culture secretary.

More legal transparency

Frazer, who is a barrister, insisted she wants to change the law to prevent strategic lawsuits, or SLAPPs, where the rich are able to use their wealth and current libel laws to silence individual investigative journalists and media organisations.

“Individuals should not be able to block the truth because their bank balance allows them to force journalists into court,” said Frazer, who added that she is working with colleagues across government to find the best way of outlawing such legal abuses.

Another big tick for the culture secretary.

As a former courts minister, Frazer has been active in making the legal system more transparent with greater access for journalists to attend and report — an opening up that the culture secretary is still encouraging.

Third tick.

Readdressing the imbalance

More importantly, Frazer said she is determined to work closely with the media industries to address the current imbalance between the big tech companies and news organisations through the Media Bill and the Digital Markets Bill.

“Once introduced, that pro-competitive regime (under the Digital Markets Bill) 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,” Frazer claimed.

It’s a big ask and we will have to see how the legislation works in practice, but it could be another tick.

No ticks yet for the culture secretary’s work on AI. No-one knows where we are heading, but she is hosting a working group of key industry executives looking at issues such as news groups getting fair remuneration and recognition when AI companies use news content and try to divert advertising revenue from the websites of news organisations.

Frazer neatly suggested that, contrary to what Neil says and thinks about government and the press: “Whilst you may not always be on our side, we are on yours — we have your back. Democracy needs us both.”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. But while not everyone wants this government to last a second longer than necessary, it is clearly in the interests of the media to get some of the measures that Frazer is backing on to the statute book.

If she does, that will definitely make her the best culture secretary since the Dorries era.

What about the BBC?

If Frazer wants an even more positive media legacy before the autumn, when she seems doomed to leave government, she might take action — or encourage foreign secretary Lord Cameron to take action — on better funding for the BBC World Service.

Politicians from all parties heap endless praise on the World Service and the “soft power” that the UK enjoys as a result. Hardly anyone wants to talk about the fact that most of its money comes out of the licence fee, which should be reserved for the provision of broadcasting services for those who pay for it in the UK.

Frazer could use her influence in cabinet on the issue in the coming few months before it is too late. With a majority of more than 11,800 in her south Cambridgeshire constituency, she should survive — unless the Labour tide turns into a political tsunami of Canadian proportions.

But, after all, backbenchers have not very much power to change anything, do they?

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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