Ofcom threat to press freedom, Blair warned

Jowell: floated Ofcom idea

Tony Blair has been warned that the Government’s plans for a new media regulator could lead to it deciding the accuracy of newspaper reporting.

News International has sounded alarm bells by hitting out at controversial plans to empower Ofcom to recommend against newspaper mergers on grounds they threaten freedom of expression.

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt floated the idea in a consultation paper before Christmas.

News International has responded by telling ministers that the plan amounts to "excessive regulation" and "dangerously would put a regulator in the business of deciding on the accuracy of newspaper reporting. There can be no greater threat to freedom of the press."

The new role proposed for Ofcom has already been criticised by the Newspaper Society.

As well as the threat to press freedom, there is also concern that the task is being entrusted to a regulator established primarily to deal with broadcasting.

Ofcom will be formed by merging the Independent Television Comm-ission, the Radio Communications Agency, the Radio Authority and the Broadcasting Standards Authority. "None of these agencies has any knowledge of experience of the newspaper industry," NI said.

In evidence to the Commons Media Select Committee, Alison Clark, director of corporate affairs at NI, also warned the Government could face a challenge in the courts if it did not abandon its ban on foreigners owning broadcasting companies.

In its Communications White Paper the Government said the ban on non-EC nationals owning media companies was reflected across Europe. The US restricts foreigners to a 25 per cent interest in broadcasting companies. "We believe these restrictions play an important role in ensuring that European consumers continue to receive high quality European content," the white paper said.

NI told MPs that if the communications bill retained the ban the Government could be challenged on the grounds it contravened the Human Rights Act.

By David Rose

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