Ministers set to step in over distribution furore

By Alyson Fixter

The Government seems increasingly likely to intervene in the ongoing
controversy over the future of magazine distribution, following a
request from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for detailed
information on how the loss of the current system could threaten the
public interest.

The DTI has asked for a briefing from the PPA, the Association of
Newspaper and Magazine Wholesalers and the Newspaper Publishers
Association as the industry awaits with growing impatience a final
opinion from the Office of Fair Trading.

The OFT was due to reach
a decision on the issue months ago, and the PPA has warned it will
appeal to MPs for help over the watchdog’s failure both to publish the
information and keep the industry informed on when to expect it.

Publishers
last week set out for the DTI’s benefit 15 reasons why consumers would
suffer if the current distribution system was opened up to more
competition.

They warned that thousands of small newsagents and
niche publications would close due to the loss of the current guarantee
of universal supply.

The end result, according to the industry,
could be that members of the public in remote areas of the country
would be unable to get access to news and information, with newspapers
also affected because they use the same distribution chain.

Under
the law, the DTI can step in on an OFT decision if it is in the public
interest, but only if a final opinion has been issued. The PPA said
this week that the OFT was failing to respond to requests for a
timescale for the final document.

David Thomas, head of legal and
public affairs at the PPA, said: “It is nearly two years since the OFT
was first asked to look into press distribution arrangements and nearly
a year since we first had a public indication of their thinking, but we
are still waiting for the final written opinion.

“Throughout its
handling of this case, the OFT has made clear its belief that its terms
of reference have prevented it from taking account of the public
interest – but elsewhere in Europe, public interest considerations have
been among those that have enabled other EU countries to sustain a
viable press distribution chain and protect consumers’ access to
diverse published information.”

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