Citizens' juries will help to decide mergers, says Jowell

Jowell: will have reserve powers

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell wants citizens’ panels to help decide whether controversial newspaper mergers threaten free speech.

The Competition Commission will be asked to use citizens panels to test local opinion before recommending whether they should go ahead.

The proposal is buried in the small print of the Government’s media shake-up announced to Parliament this week.

The draft communications bill clears the way for Rupert Murdoch’s News International and other large newspaper groups to buy a controlling stake in Channel 5, for news-papers to expand into radio, and for US and other overseas media giants to take over ITV companies. But it will maintain safeguards to prevent anyone with a dominant position in the newspaper market from owning a regional TV station.

Parliament will be asked to endorse legislation to ensure that at least three commercial local or regional media voices exist (in newspapers, television and radio), as well as the BBC, in almost every community.

So the rules barring newspapers with 20 per cent of the market from acquiring a stake in 20 per cent of ITV companies will be retained, although it will be relaxed for Channel 5.

"Regional TV and regional/local newspapers are the two most important media, in size and scope, at regional or city level," said the policy document.

While there will no longer be any requirement for newspaper mergers to have to be approved by the Secretary of State – they will be subject to competition law only – Jowell will retain reserve powers to refer merger proposals to the Competition Commission where there is "exceptional public interest (EPI)".

"This will be directed to those cases that involve the public interest in accurate presentation of the news, free expression of opinion and plurality of views in the press.

"Where the EPI provisions are invoked in relation to local newspapers, the Competition Commission will be expected to carry out effective tests of local opinion, for example by means of citizens’ juries."

The commission will make recommendations on remedies it deems appropriate to meet competition or plurality concerns, though the final decision will rest with the Secretary of State. Before making any decision the Secretary of State will consult new media regulator Ofcom.

Ofcom will review media ownership rules every three years.

To protect the independence of news and maintain its "high quality" ITV licensees will be required to fund ITN.

Publishers, broadcasters and others will now have three months to respond to the proposals.

While the Newspaper Society acknowledged the Government had listened to its concerns and had made some concessions, it served notice it would press for further changes The NUJ said it was worried about the long-term effects on broadcast journalism but welcomed the structure that will prevent complete control of ITN by the ITV Network companies, and the requirement for ITN to be properly financed.

By David Rose

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