Government Pussyfoots on UK Media Ownership Restrictions

28 November 2001

The government’s long awaited Communications Bill is likely to maintain the current status quo with regard to cross-ownership of TV and press media.

A consultation document issued jointly on Monday by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry sets out three main options on cross-media ownership:

• Retaining the current rules, which prevent any individual or organisation with 20% or more of the national newspaper market from owning more than 20% of a terrestrial television broadcaster;

• Raising these thresholds;

• Scrapping the rules altogether.

The discussion paper was less ambivalent on the matter of TV ownership by companies without national press properties, confirming that the government plans to scrap the rule preventing any commercial broadcaster from commanding more than 15% of the UK viewing audience.

This effectively gives the green light to ITV titans Granada Media and Carlton Communications to consummate their urge to mate – although they will have to contain their passion until the bill becomes law next summer.

On one count, however, the document did not duck the question. The government confirmed that the bill will ratify existing rules that only companies based in the European Union can control UK broadcasting groups – purportedly because the USA and Australia impose restrictions on British ownership of their media.

This equates to a positive ‘perhaps’ for Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to own a non-satellite TV broadcaster in the UK. Murdoch, an Australian by birth, is now a US citizen. But his European satellite operation, BSkyB, which would almost certainly be used as a takeover vehicle, is based in London and quoted on the UK stock market.

This blatant fudge has upset a number of Labour members of parliament as well as the non-Murdoch press, all of whom are united in their opposition to any further expansion of Murdoch's extant hold on the UK media market.

Said gleeful Tory media spokesperson, Tim Yeo: “It's pretty feeble. They're obviously nervous about being accused of kowtowing to Rupert Murdoch. They're in a blue funk.”

News source: The Times (London);