Puttnam Suggests Compromise in Row Over Britain’s Five

05 June 2003

Lord David Puttnam is trying to amend legislation relaxing British media ownership law in a bid to resolve the dispute over terrestrial channel Five.

One of several complaints critics have voiced about the new Communications Bill is that it would allow the takeover of Five by newspaper groups such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail & General Trust. Culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell, however, has so far refused to amend the proposals.

Puttnam, who headed the joint parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Bill, is leading a group of vociferous peers resisting government attempts to speed the legislation through the House of Lords without alteration.

The former film producer has tabled an amendment designed to resolve the impasse between Jowell and the Bill’s critics. His suggestion is that the relaxation of ownership rules governing Five, Britain’s smallest terrestrial channel, should proceed on condition that regulators can assess whether a takeover – if it happens – is in the public interest.

Under Puttnam’s plan, the culture secretary would have the power to refer a controversial bid to new communications regulator Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading. These could review the market conditions at the time and judge whether the takeover is acceptable.

Such a scheme, argues the peer, would be “future-proof”, allowing Five’s destiny to be determined by the state of the market when a bid is launched rather than when the Bill is passed.

• Meanwhile, the government faces further opposition to the Bill in the Lords – this time concerning ownership of news provider ITN.

Although ITN supplies terrestrial network ITV with news, it is not owned by the broadcaster (leading ITV shareholders Granada and Carlton Communications own 20% each). No single shareholder or group may own more than this percentage, though the Bill suggests raising the bar to 40%.

Several peers, including Conservative shadow culture minister Baroness Buscombe and her Liberal Democrat counterpart Lord McNally, want this restriction removed altogether.

Said Buscombe: “Hamstringing ITN with ownership rules that will hamper its ability to secure investment will weaken competition in the news supply market and ultimately be to the detriment of viewers and democracy as a whole.”

Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff