DTI asked to step in over distribution row

By Alyson Fixter

Pressure was this week growing on the Government to make a rare
intervention at the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), as opposition MPs
stepped into the controversy over the future of magazine distribution.

As Press Gazette went to press, MPs were due to debate the issue in
Parliament following calls from shadow trade minister James Brokenshire
for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to rein in the watchdog
as a matter of public interest.

Publishers and retailers have
been backed by culture secretary Tessa Jowell, the Mayor of London, Ken
Livingstone, and Tory peer and Haymarket owner Michael Heseltine in the
long-running row about whether the wholesale magazine market should be
opened up to more competition.

According to a draft opinion
issued by the OFT in May, the current system is anti-competitive, and
newsagents should be free to seek better deals from magazine suppliers.

But
the publishing and retailing industries – who are usually on opposite
sides of the fence – have joined forces to warn that the opinion could
be devastating to small newsagents and niche magazines. They also say
that public access to news and information could be compromised because
the full range of titles would no longer be automatically available
across the UK.

Brokenshire, MP for Hornchurch, told Press
Gazette: “This issue could have far-reaching consequences, not just for
retailers but in terms of the range of titles we have on our shelves,
even affecting some newspapers.

“I want to highlight the
uncertainty in the industry that this whole issue has thrown up, and to
call on the DTI to intervene in this process.

“By concentrating on one small aspect of the industry the OFT may be missing the bigger picture.

“It’s
strange for a Conservative to be arguing for this sort of arrangement,
but we can look at markets in a different way, and I am looking at
retailing and newspapers and magazines as a whole.

“This is a very delicate situation, and if it goes the wrong way it isn’t in the public interest.”

A
PPA spokesman said the body had been briefing MPs in the run up to the
debate, and hoped it would add to the pressure on the OFT to rethink
its position on the issue.

There is still no sign of when the
final decision is likely to come through, following the departure of
chairman John Vickers from the watchdog last month and the arrival of
his replacements, Philip Collins and John Fingleton.

Industry insiders have expressed hope that the delay could be a sign of an impending U-turn.

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