Jowell under pressure to relax media ownership law

 

Newspaper publishers have served notice on new Media Secretary Tessa Jowell that they expect her to sweep away rules on cross-media ownership.

Next week’s Queen’s Speech is expected to confirm the Government will press ahead with legislation to establish the new media regulator, Ofcom, by 2003.

Jowell will present a draft communications bill within weeks and will then consult the industry before asking Parliament to approve legislation next year.

National and regional newspaper publishers have been lobbying for a relaxation in cross-media ownership rules since the communications white paper last year said ministers were ready to consider changes.

The present rules bar national and regional newspapers with 20 per cent of the market from ownership of a national or regional TV service.

Santha Rasaiah, head of political and regulatory affairs at the Newspaper Society, said: "The Newspaper Society hopes its case for liberalising media ownership rules will be incorporated in the communications bill which we hope will be brought forward this year."

Prime Minister Tony Blair sacked Chris Smith and three other ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over the Wembley national stadium and National Lottery fiasco. But the Prime Minister decided against breaking up the department.

Jowell will head a new team comprising Dick Caborn, Kim Howells and Baroness Blackstone. Patricia Hewitt, promoted to Trade and Industry Secretary, will also play a key role in drafting legislation.

But Whitehall civil servants believe that decisions on whether or not to relax cross-media ownership rules will ultimately be taken by Downing Street rather than departmental ministers because of the importance Blair attaches to broadcasting.

BBC chiefs have told the Govern-ment they are opposed to relaxing the rules. The BBC itself is looking to Jowell to approve two new digital channels, BBC3 and BBC4.

In detailed submissions to Jowell the BBC said BBC3 would have an hourly news service targeted at younger audiences.

"In the case of the next General Election, this would allow BBC3 to offer coverage and analysis speci-fically targeted at encouraging interest and participation from younger voters."

In another move Blair has transferred responsibility for implementing the Freedom of Information Act from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor.

Rasaiah said Lord Irvine was a champion of freedom of information. "We hope that will be reflected in the way the act is implemented."

By David Rose

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