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Digital Economy Bill: Govt Survives Tories’ IFNC Downsizing Bid

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As bidders for the independently-funded news consortia pitch their proposals in public meetings across the country, over in the House of Lords, the government managed to fend off Conservative Lord Howard’s rather limp attempts to water down the whole concept in the Digital Economy Bill on Wednesday night…

Funding: Howard proposed an amendment that would remove Ofcom’s ability to pay winning IFNCs chosen by the DCMS, effectively killing the idea. Howard’s opposition is philosophical: “We do not believe that public subsidy should be used to prop up the current system of regional news.” He managed to get Labour Lord Davies, who is steering the bill through Lords committee stage for the government to concede the government has not considered long-term funding for the consortia. But Howard agreed to withdraw the amendment.

Free content: Many bidders are keen to give the news they create over to bloggers, academia etc – but Howard used an amendment to make the point that: “If the IFNCs are required to give their content away, how will they become commercially viable? Their only asset is the content that they make. If they cannot sell it, they will be for ever dependent on public subsidy, or is that the intention?” But Labour’s Davies said to undo this “would prevent innovation”: “We are merely recognising the importance of news provision online … We believe that the need to find models that continue to reach audiences and more opportunities to provide content relevant to local people, including user-generated content and hyper-local use, has substantial possibilities.” Howard withdrew his amendment.

Online newspaper subsidies: Lord Howard also tabled another amendment asking if a newspaper that’s a consortium member “will be able to spend money on its own website”: “If this is the case, surely its rivals will have a pretty good argument that they are being driven out of business by a subsidised competitor.” He was essentially trying to get the IFNCs limited to single-medium, TV-only operation. But Davies reminded him that papers are in difficulty, too, and: “In a greatly changed media environment, and one which is going to change with great rapidity in the foreseeable future, we have to move beyond the analogue world.” Again the amendment was withdrawn.

The next session takes place on February 9, when the Lords will look at Freeview and DAB switchover, video game classification, copyright licensing and public lending, ahead of further analysis and then passage for perusal by Commons MPs in March.