Fresh hope for publishers as trade minister pledges help

By Alyson Fixter

The
Government has signalled hope for publishers on the future of magazine
distribution, in a parliamentary debate in which trade minister Gerry
Sutcliffe said he would do “everything in his power” to ensure industry
concerns were heard by the Office of Fair Trading.

In a debate
raised by James Brokenshire, Conservative MP for Hornchurch, last week,
Sutcliffe said the OFT’s new chairman and chief executive were aware of
the wider issues of the debate, fuelling speculation of an approaching
U-turn from the watchdog.

Publishers and retailers have been
lobbying since May for the OFT to change its position on distribution
arrangements, after it issued a draft opinion saying the current rules
were anti-competitive and newsagents should be free to seek better
deals.

Publishers fear the opinion, if made final this year,
could lead to hundreds of niche titles closing, while retailers have
warned it would further tip the market balance in favour of supermarket
giants and put small newsagents out of business.

In the debate,
Brokenshire said: “This is about the simple ability to pop round the
corner to buy publications on a wide range of pastimes that matter to
individuals, from angling to aviation, fashion to finance and pig
breeding to news reading.

“All of that could be under threat as a
consequence of a desire to interfere in a well-established market on
the mistaken premise of a drive to promote competition and
modernisation, which already exist.”

Sutcliffe said in response
to Brokenshire: “The industry is well aware of my concerns and those of
all honourable members. I shall encourage discussion to continue.

“The
formal route must be through the OFT, but I assure the honourable
gentleman that I shall do everything in my power to make sure that a
decision is made sooner rather than later and that maximum discussion
will take place among people on both sides of the argument.”

The
final opinion is still not thought to be due for several weeks, but
following interventions from culture minister Tessa Jowell, the Mayor
of London, Ken Livingstone, and Michael Heseltine, owner of Haymarket,
pressure is growing on the OFT to rethink.

The previous chairman,
John Vickers, left his post last month amid speculation he had delayed
the final opinion so as not to be associated with a U-turn. It is
thought the new chairman, John Fingleton, and chief executive Philip
Collins might be more sympathetic to the industry.

One industry
insider said: “I am now confident that things are moving in the right
direction, but it is not over till the fat lady sings, and we are very
far from that point.”

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