Puttnam Victorious in UK Media Ownership Battle

03 July 2003

As predicted in Wednesday’s WAMN, Lord David Puttnam, former film producer and for three years chairman/ceo of Hollywood's Columbia Pictures, on Tuesday won a notable victory against a government of which he is in other circumstances a loyal and ardent supporter.

But Puttnam, now Labour spokesman in Britain's second parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, would not be likely to describe it as a victory. Simply the primacy of common sense to ensure a virile and competitive UK media environment as enacted by the upcoming Communications Bill.

Culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell announced Tuesday evening that the Blair administration had agreed to the peer’s demand for a public interest ‘plurality test’ to be applied to proposed large-scale media mergers.

Although known colloquially as the “Murdoch clause”, Puttnam’s amendment will apply equally to all media owners and could safeguard commercial channel Five or a merged ITV from takeover by Viacom or any other US media giant.

However, the government is expected to entrust the critical wording of the plurality conditions to Ofcom, the new supra-regulator created by the bill to oversee broadcast , telecommunications and electronic media. Ofcom will also be asked to define the circumstances in which the ‘test’ would be triggered.

In return for the concession Puttnam has withdrawn his support for the Lords’ amendments which will instead be incorporated into the government version of the bill. He has written accordingly to all his supporters in the Lords – thereby minimizing the possibility of the bill’s rejection by the upper chamber later this week.

Talking Wednesday morning to BBC4’s Today programme, Puttnam said: “The sort of protections we have been looking for are contained in these proposed amendments which the government will put forward.”

And the role of the new regulator? “Ofcom will have to ask how much share of the public voice does a media owner control, and at a certain point, if it is too large it has to be trimmed back,” Puttnam said.

The amendments will formally confirm that the public interest must be paramount in Ofcom's decisions [WAMN’s italics]. The changes will also provide Ofcom with more generous funding to help it fight the inevitable legal challenges from multinational media corporations.

It will be interesting to see whether Ofcom ceo Stephen Carter – himself well acquainted with the machinations of multinational media corporations – will now eat his public rubbishing of the Puttnam amendments at this week’s ISBA lunch [WAMN: 02-Jul-03].

But some believe it premature to celebrate the winning of a battle while the outcome of the war is as yet uncertain. Let Arnie have the last word as to the threat from multinational media giants.

The muscleman was quoted by Puttnam ally, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tom McNally “Believe me,” said the noble Lord, “these forces out there, in the words of the Terminator, they’ll be back!”

• Other amendments to the Communications Bill were debated in the House of Lords Tuesday night. If passed - which is probable - these would allow ITV companies Carlton Communications and Granada Media finally to control ITN (Independent Television News) in which they have been principal shareholders for the past four decades. The government has indicated it will accept these changes.

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