Blair under pressure on Ofcom proposals

Blair: will have final say

Tony Blair is under pressure to abandon plans to allow new media regulator Ofcom to advise ministers to rule against newspaper mergers on grounds they would endanger freedom of expression.

The Government floated the idea of an extended role for Ofcom in a consultation paper before Christmas.

But a summary of responses published this week by Media Secretary Tessa Jowell disclosed it has aroused opposition from newspaper groups such as the Newspaper Society and Northcliffe Newspapers.

While the existing regulator, the Independent Television Commission, saw merit in the idea, the Broadcasting Standards Commission said it would represent a substantial extension of Ofcom’s "home territory". Trinity Mirror suggested ministers would find it more helpful for civil servants to advise them on mergers.

As expected, publishers and commercial broadcasters backed easing media ownership rules amid speculation that the Prime Minister, who will have the final say, will deny Rupert Murdoch unfettered freedom to buy into terrestrial television.

The NUJ said any legislation that would allow News International to acquire either Channel 5 or an ITV franchise would be "undesirable".

The union also opposed removing existing legal obstacles to a single ITV company, saying they would weaken the commitment to regional news and programmes.

Journalists will have to wait until after the council elections on 2 May for the Government’s decision.

By David Rose

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