'Scrap regional press ownership laws'

NS wants controls on press mergers abolished

The Newspaper Society has told the Government it wants media-ownership laws for the regional newspaper industry scrapped.

In its response to the Communications White Paper, the society says the regional industry is united in believing general competition law should replace "out-dated media ownership controls".

In particular, the society wants the abolition of the unique controls that restrict the merger of newspaper companies and transfer of newspaper titles. It has told the Government it supports further easing of the cross-media ownership restrictions.

It rejects the consultation paper’s claim that the case for media-ownership controls remains strong on democratic grounds. The society notes that the Competition Commission has never found that the takeover of a newspaper was against the public interest on freedom of expression grounds. It also points out that of 172 cases referred to the regulators over the past 20 years, only three have been refused.

The society argues that regional and local newspapers should be excluded from any special regime of controls; newspaper ownership should not come under the new regulator, Ofcom; that prior consent requirements on newspaper takeovers should be abolished; and that there should be no public interest test.

The NS argues that to maintain or increase circulation, regional newspapers must reflect the views and concerns of readers. "This is a matter not only of principle, but also of sound commercial practice. The business and publication would fail if any newspaper publisher, whether a long established company or local business entrepreneur, sought to confine the news agenda, prohibit expression of local opinion and otherwise deny editorial freedom," it claims.

On cross-media ownership, it says regional newspaper companies should be able to own outright media outlets in their titles’ core circulation areas, with no new restrictions.

It adds: "The Government must consider the position of the BBC, in view of its strong, varied and ever developing commercial and editorial activities, licence funded and otherwise, with which regional newspaper companies compete." The society is also concerned at the proposal that local authorities should be allowed to own media companies which carry advertising.

 

By Jon Slattery

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