'Murdoch gives editors freedom' says minister

Broadcasting minister Kim Howells has praised Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for allowing editors freedom to pursue different political agendas.

“News Corp has shown a high degree of management insight in finding out what people want to read,” Dr Howells told MPs scrutinising the communications bill.

“It has realised that the British people do not want to be served by one political viewpoint. It has also realised that it can have all kinds of editorial themes running through its news coverage – if we read the newspapers every day we can see evidence of that.”

Dr Howells voiced his views while rejecting Opposition claims that the Government’s decision to retain its ban on a national newspaper with 20 per cent of the market from buying Channel 3 was aimed at News International.

“I see no objection to News International making a bid should it chose to do so,” Shadow Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said. But a Tory amendment to remove the ban was defeated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Dr Howells said: “The clause is not about News International. I think that News International has been responsible for nothing short of a revolution in the way the communications industry in this country operates.”

But Dr Howells said removing the ban would “risk a significant reduction in the number of voices in play in the media. There would be a risk that one voice would become louder than the others.”

The Government also defeated a Tory-LibDem attempt to allow ITV to run its own news service in place of ITN. The bill will allow ITV to increase its present stake from 20 to 40 per cent.

Opposition MPs warned that the present arrangement, where ITN has to bid against rival organisations, has damaged ITN, forcing it to cut its budget and lay off staff.

LibDem media spokesman Nick Harvey said that if the auction continued ITN could lose the contract. “ITN has fallen on hard times,” he added.

Tory and LibDems, however, plan to press the amendment again when the bill goes to the House of Lords, where the Government could be in danger of defeat.

Dr Howells said super-regulator Ofcom would be empowered to examine the issue. “If Ofcom were persuaded by ITV companies that an alternative ownership structure would safeguard its quality, impartiality and investment in news on ITV, changes may be made sooner rather than later.”

by David Rose

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