By David Rose
Media Secretary Tessa Jowell is facing pressure from the Newspaper Society to curb the proposed powers of Ofcom amid concern that it could insist on the dismissal of journalists.
The Society has long opposed Government plans for Ofcom to advise ministers on whether newspaper mergers pose a threat to free speech or accurate reporting.
Ofcom’s main function will be to regulate broadcasters, and regional publishers say it should have no role in the newspaper industry. But analysis of the sweeping powers that will be conferred on Ofcom by the communications bill has prompted the NS to warn MPs that it could threaten editorial jobs on local newspapers.
“Ofcom’s role in newspaper transfers is too extensive,” the NS said in a briefing note to MPs. “This gives Ofcom powers to investigate, examine and advise on accurate presentation of news, free expression of opinion and plurality of views in newspapers.
“Ofcom must be consulted at every stage of the merger process, for advice on plurality, on whether transactions should be vetoed, or on what conditions (potentially including the appointment or dismissal of editorial personnel) might be applied.”
With the bill now being subject to a line-by-line scrutiny by a Commons committee, the NS is pressing for amendments when MPs examine its impact on newspapers next month.
The bill proposes that ministers be able to refer newspaper mergers to the Competition Commission on grounds of “exceptional public interest”. The commission can seek advice from citizen’s juries. Ofcom’s role will be to advise ministers before and after any reference to the commission.
Santha Rasaiah, the NS political, legal and regulatory affairs director, said: “Ministers shouldn’t have discretion to intervene. What we need to do is to limit the scope of these powers.”
The NS is pressing MPs to exclude the press or, at the very least, the smaller weekly newspapers, from Ofcom’s remit.
Shadow Media Secretary John Whittingdale promised to raise the concerns of the industry. “I don’t think Ofcom should be involved in newspaper mergers,” he said.
“Ofcom is a broadcasting regulator. The press is a different entity. Newspapers are covered by the competition regime administered by the competition authorities. Introducing another power to involve Ofcom is unnecessary.”