US ownership of ITV will not lower standards: Jowell

Jowell: attacked "xenophobes"

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell has dismissed claims that the decision to lift the ban on foreign ownership of ITV would push down standards in news, claiming it would bring in "money, innovation and management".

Dismissing as "xenophobes" those who expressed concern about the future of public service broadcasting under US ownership, Jowell said it was "absolutely ridiculous" to prevent companies such as AOL Time Warner or Disney buying into the UK’s media industry when European companies, like Germany’s Bertelsman, already own Channel 5.

"Whether it’s the dollar, the euro or the pound, the quality controls on content will remain the same," said Jowell.

"If we had no content control, if we were simply liberating content, then of course we would be worried. But I do not believe that is the case. If Disney bought ITV it would be liable to the same broadcasting obligations as Carlton and Granada."

Speaking at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch, Jowell made it clear that although there may be adjustments to the draft communications bill, its contents were "decisions rather than proposals" and would not be changed substantially.

The bill contains plans for a three-tier system of regulation that sets out basic requirements on content that apply to all channels.

While economic deregulation was intended to make the media "like any other industry", Jowell said the bill also recognised its "importance to debate and democracy".

"Ofcom will be a powerful regulator and will have strong powers of intervention when light touch regulation fails," she said.

But the new regulator would not have powers to set a minimum level of funding for ITV news although Jowell conceded that "news suffers from under-investment".

Last year ITN secured the contract to supply ITV News, but the price was forced down from £45m to £36m by a rival bid by BSkyB-led consortium.

Jowell has said that nominated news-provider rules are being toughened up in order to protect the quality of the commercial broadcaster’s news.

Companies will be able to buy a maximum 40 per cent share of the nominated news provider with the lifting of the 20 per cent bar.

The move would allow three owners rather than five and clears the way for Carlton and Granada to increase their stake should Reuters, Daily Mail & General Trust and United Business Media decide to sell.

But while she said economic restrictions preventing Rupert Murdoch owning Channel 5 would be lifted, Jowell made it clear that such a move by his company BSkyB would still have to be cleared by competition authorities.

"We have lifted the media ownership hurdles, but the rules of competition still apply," she said.

By Julie Tomlin

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