The Conservatives are planning a “big bang” deregulation of local media ownership to revive regional newspapers and television, shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.
A Tory government would sweep away cross-media ownership rules which prevent local groups owning more than one newspaper or radio station to provide tougher competition for the BBC and give commercial operators more chance of survival, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Hunt confirmed that he was ready to freeze or cut the TV licence fee in a new settlement with the BBC for the period from 2012.
He insisted that he would not dictate how the Corporation should tighten its belt, but indicated that little-watched channels such as BBC3 and BBC4 could be candidates for the chop, while the BBC would be expected to rein in executive pay.
He told the newspaper: “There is a massive crisis in the media industry. We will strip away the regulations in the same way that Big Bang revolutionised the City to make it a major financial centre of the world.”
Hunt is expected to say in a speech in Manchester on Thursday that “micro-regulation” of the media has stifled innovation.
The Tories have already indicated that they plan to cut back the policy-making powers of media regulator Ofcom.
Hunt said that the party would also reserve the right to reopen the review of TV rights for sporting “crown jewels” if the Government reached the wrong judgment on which events should be reserved for free-to-air channels.
In an interview with Sky News, he made clear that the Tories would expect the BBC to make economies in negotiations for the licence fee settlement to come into effect from 2012.
“Times are very tough and I think it would be pretty hard to make a case for an increase in the licence fee now,” he said.
“We are not ruling out freezing the licence fee or cutting it but the BBC has to make their case very strongly because times are very difficult for licence fee payers…
“We haven’t had any discussions with the BBC about the level of the licence fee, but we have made very clear we accept the principle of the licence fee. It has worked very well and it produces great TV, which is what the public want.
“If we win the next election, we will be negotiating with the BBC the next licence fee settlement that starts from 2012 and having a more realistic approach to executive pay will be a very important part of what we will be saying that need to be doing for licence fee payers.”
Hunt said the justification for the BBC spending hundreds of millions of pounds on “channels which reach very small audiences” was not clear, but insisted it was not for politicians to order the Corporation to ditch particular programmes or channels.
He dismissed as “absolute nonsense” Labour claims of a deal with Rupert Murdoch to favour his News International media empire and rein in the BBC in return for the support of The Sun.
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson alleged last week that the Tories and News International had “effectively formed a contract” and queried what payback Murdoch would expect if David Cameron won power in the general election.
But Hunt said that any such deal would be “completely wrong and totally improper”.
“There are no deals,” he said. “I think what Peter Mandelson said is extraordinary. If there was some deal between the Conservatives and NewsCorp, then what about Labour’s deal in 1997 or 2001 or 2005?”