Unchanged Bill would put regionals in danger

Bowdler: “mergers more difficult”

Ministers have been warned their new media laws will have “serious consequences” for regional papers, unless they agree to last-minute changes.

The warning has been sounded by Newspaper Society president Tim Bowdler as regional publishers stepped up their lobbying to persuade peers to secure amendments to the Communications Bill.

Bowdler dispatched his warning to Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt and Media Secretary Tessa Jowell as the massive bill began its committee stage in the Lords, where it will be subject to line-by-line scrutiny by peers.

Regional publishers are pressing peers to remove new media regulator Ofcom from having a role in newspaper mergers.

Under the bill, Ofcom will be empowered 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 the Competition Commission, which will be free to convene “citizens’ juries” to sound out public opinion.

“Newspaper mergers are likely to be more difficult than at present, contrasting dramatically with the deregulated environment which will be enjoyed by other branches of the media,” Bowdler told ministers.

“We continue to believe that it would be possible for the Government to make modest changes to the bill, which would go a long way to addressing the concerns.”

Bowdler said advice on public interest issues should be left either to the DTI or to the Office of Fair Trading.

The Newspaper Society also wants weekly newspapers removed from the merger regime altogether.

The regional publishers’ move came as editors await an expected amendment to bring the Press Complaints Commission under Ofcom.

Liberal Democrat broadcasting spokesman Lord McNally has said he will table the amendment in the expectation that the Commons media select committee, chaired by Gerald Kaufman, will recommend a backstop power for Ofcom to consider appeals against decisions by the PCC.

Both Jowell and Hewitt have said they will whip Labour peers into the lobbies to defeat any amendment to ensure press self-regulation continues.

The first clash over the bill this week renewed the threat that peers may gang up to defeat the Government to prevent Rupert Murdoch buying terrestrial television channel Five. Labour peer Lord Puttnam warned against “government obduracy” after media minister Baroness Blackstone opposed an amendment charging Ofcom with the duty to put the interests of the public above the marketplace.

Jowell, however, made it clear the government would stick by the bill. “This is not about Rupert Murdoch, and let’s be absolutely clear about that.

“The other potential beneficiaries, by lifting the restrictions in relation to the ownership of Five – the Daily Mail and General Trust and the Trinity Mirror Group, both newspaper groups with substantial market shares – are shut out by the present rule.”

By David Rose

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