Ofcom: Regulation of local newspaper mergers is 'too onerous'

Competition regulation involving local newspaper mergers is “too onerous”, according to a new report from media watchdog Ofcom.

The advice come a year after KM Group’s bid to buy seven Kent newspapers from Northcliffe Media collapsed when the Office of Fair Trading referred the decision to the Competition Commission.

At the time Ofcom warned the OFT that both publishers could be forced to close titles if the merger fell through.

Since then Northcliffe has closed three newspapers in the region: The Thanet Times, East Kent Gazette and Medway News.

In a letter to the new Culture Secretary Maria Miller, which was copied to the Leveson Inquiry, Ofcom recommended excluding the regional and local media from public interest aspects of media merger regulation and the new plurality proposals outlined earlier this year.

Ofcom noted that “the existing regime to deal with the competition issues raised by local media mergers is widely perceived as being too onerous”.

It added: “This is not the place to address that concern, but we do believe it is important that it is not exacerbated by the plurality framework.

“We therefore recommend that the Government considers whether the public interest grounds associated with mergers should be modified so as to have the same focus as the periodic review; namely, on those mergers which might affect plurality at the level either of the UK or the devolved nations.”

The news has been welcomed by the local newspaper body the Newspaper Society, which has lobbied the Government for years on the issue.

Last year, the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt asked Ofcom for advice on media plurality following the collapsed merger of NewsCorp and BskyB.

The Ofcom report, called Measuring Media Plurality suggested a review of plurality every four or five years, encompassing print, broadcast and online

The NS said the periodic review would be in addition to merger reviews triggered by individual transactions, either as part of a new system, or in parallel with the existing merger regime.

Ofcom suggests that local media should be excluded from the proposed periodic review of plurality.

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