New call to Blair over ownership legislation

Rasaiah: "end special regime"

Pressure mounted on Tony Blair this week to scrap the special regime controlling newspaper mergers and media ownership.

Regional and local newspaper publishers stepped up their campaign to relax the rules controlling newspaper and cross-media mergers and acquisitions, leaving newspapers subject to competition law only.

The Newspaper Society presented evidence to the Commons all-party media committee ahead of its response to the government’s media consultation paper.

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell and Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt angered publishers in November when they proposed giving new media regulator Ofcom power to advise ministers on whether newspaper mergers "would compromise the accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion".

David Newell, the society’s director, accused ministers of going back on their promise to adopt a lighter-touch approach to mergers and said there were dangers Ofcom would have a "czar-like role which restricts editorial freedoms".

The society was this week still consulting its members before submitting its formal views to to meet government’s 25 January deadline for representations.

But it outlined its attitude to the Commons media committee which is to carrying out its own inquiry.

Santha Rasaiah, the society’s political, legal and regulatory affairs director, said: "There should be an end to any special regime for regional and local newspapers."

The Government will announce its decision on mergers and media ownership when it publishes its draft communications bill in the spring.

Publishers will then get another opportunity to shape legislation. A joint committee of MPs and peers will invite and consider representations before the government next autumn publishes its main bill to establish the new media regime and Ofcom by the summer of 2003.

The prospect of another two years’ delay before legislation has led the Conservatives to propose their own bill to pave the way for a single ITV company. The Government favours allowing Granada and Carlton to merge if they wish but has refused to introduce special legislation ahead of the main bill.

Tim Yeo, Shadow Media Secretary, said: "It is clearly ludicrous that the media is still subject to special competition laws when it is so clearly detrimental to the growth and prosperity of that sector."

lThe Competition Commission will consider whether there is a "live-and-let-live" attitude among regional newspaper publishers, whereby they avoid head-to-head competition, as part of its investigation into the proposed transfer of eight Trinity Mirror titles in the East Midlands to Johnston Press. It will also look at whether the deal would lead to reduced editorial content and diversity of opinion. A decision is expected in March.

By David Rose

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