Peers have plunged Gordon Brown into potential conflict with media owners by demanding that future newspaper and broadcasting mergers should be vetoed if they harm news gathering by journalists.
A cross-party select committee has expressed concern that the onset of 24 hour news and online journalism has not been accompanied by a corresponding expansion in news gathering and investigative journalism.
As a result peers have rejected industry calls for media ownership rules to be relaxed, and instead have called for the public interest test now applied to mergers to be amended to include a requirement to establish whether a merger ‘will impact adversely on news gathering”.
‘It is news gathering and investigative journalism that distinguishes a great news organisation,’the committee told the government following an inquiry into media ownership and its impact on news presentation.
‘It is therefore clearly in the public interest that a media merger does not negatively impact in the amount of time and money devoted to this type of journalism.”
The House of Lords Communications Committee also called for media regulator Ofcom to be given a stronger role in newspaper mergers. At present, Business Secretary John Hutton decides whether to trigger the public interest test if a newspaper merger is proposed. If he decides to issue an Intervention Notice, the Office of Fair Trading investigates whether the merger will be likely to raise competition issues while Ofcom investigates whether it could raise public interest concerns.
The committee wants Ofcom to be empowered to intervene without government direction.
‘Governments of all persuasions spend time building good relationships with powerful media proprietors,’the peers said. ‘This is not necessarily wrong but it does raise a possible source of conflict of interest if the same people who want, and need, to stay on the right side of a media company, have the final say on that company’s business interest.”
In evidence to the committee Trinity Mirror called for Ofcom”s role to be limited while the Newspaper Society and other newspaper owners called for the easting of media ownership rules.
But the peers said that instead of limiting Ofcom’s role they wanted the regulator to start building an expertise in advance of examining a newspaper merger.
However they said that cross-media ownership restrictions applying to local newspapers and local radio should be lifted. Ofcom would intervene applying the public interest test if public interest considerations were raised.
Committee chairman Lord Fowler said: “The news media is experiencing a period of unprecedented change. There is considerable uncertainty about the future. The newspaper industry is facing severe problems as readership levels falls. Young people turn to other sources of news and advertising moves to the internet.
‘Even when newspapers run successful internet sites the value of the advertising they sell on these sites does not make up for the value lost. In television news the same trends are evident and audiences for news programmes have reduced.
‘The result is that there has been consolidation of ownership and pressure on costs. Companies are having to make savings and this is having a particular impact on investment in news gathering and investigative and specialist journalism, including a reduction in foreign correspondents.”