Newspaper chiefs' fears over Ofcom merger role

Hewitt: concerns "wide of the mark"

Tony Blair was put on a collision course with newspaper chiefs after Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt insisted super-regulator Ofcom will have a role in mergers.

National and regional publishers have voiced fears that the largely broadcasting regulator could end up interfering in editorial decisions threatening self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission.

But Hewitt dismissed their concerns as "wide of the mark" when she gave evidence to the joint committee of MPs and peers which this week completed its examination of the draft communications bill.

"There is real concern among newspaper proprietors and managers that we are intending that Ofcom will be getting in there to regulate content of newspapers. That is simply not the case," she told the committee.

Her unwillingness to abandon the proposal ahead of the committee reporting by 7 August leaves publishers with having to lobby Parliament for amendments when the main bill is introduced in November.

Publishers’ worries have been triggered by the proposal to empower Ofcom to advise ministers on whether newspaper mergers compromise "the accurate expression of news and free expression of opinion".

Where ministers believe "exceptional public interest" is involved they will be able to refer mergers to another body, the Competition Commission, which will be free to convene "citizens’ juries" to sound out public opinion.

Ofcom will be formed from a merger of the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and three other regulators with a background of regulating broadcasters but with no experience of the newspaper industry.

Industry chiefs told the joint committee, headed by Labour peer Lord Puttnam, that they would prefer responsibility to lie with the Department of Trade and Industry rather than Ofcom when it assumes its role as media regulator next year.

Les Hinton, executive chairman of News International, told the committee: "We believe newspapers as part of a free press which generates free discussion and debate should not be subject to its scrutiny."

Trinity Mirror chief executive Philip Graf said that because of its broadcasting background Ofcom was an "unsuitable body" to regulate the press.

"Trinity Mirror does not believe Ofcom will be comfortable or capable of regulating an industry that is entitled, and some would argue, obligated to be partisan."

Lord Puttnam provoked the Newspaper Society into a robust defence of regional newspapers when he questioned the effectiveness of self-regulation.

Lord Puttnam claimed there had been cases where the Press Com-plaints Committee did not enjoy a great deal of the public’s confidence.

Stephen Parker, managing director, regional newspapers, Trinity Mirror, replied that every survey showed regional and local newspapers were trusted by readers. "We would argue that reflects on the fact that self-regulation is working well."

By David Rose

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