Puttnam Warns of Lords Defeat for UK Media Bill

09 June 2003

Lord David Puttnam is confident Britain’s House of Lords will block legislation relaxing media ownership law unless it is changed.

Puttnam – one of several rebel peers opposing sections of the Communications Bill – has warned culture, media and sport minister Tessa Jowell that the Lords will vote against the Bill unless she alters clauses allowing newspaper firms to buy terrestrial channel Five.

What particularly concerns Puttnam is the prospect of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, owner of several national newspapers and the leading digital-TV operator BSkyB, getting its hands on Five.

Last week, the peer proposed a compromise allowing a takeover of the channel to be referred to new communications regulator Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading to decide whether the bid was in the public interest [WAMN: 05-Jun-03]. However, ministers have refused to budge.

Puttnam – who chaired the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Bill – argued that the government “had shown its ground for battle,” warning Jowell to consider her next move wisely. “Choose intelligently, choose thoughtfully,” he advised, “but your present position is wholly unacceptable.”

A House of Lords defeat would not mean the end of the Communications Bill, as it could eventually be overruled by the House of Commons. However, it would be an embarrassing setback for the government and would considerably delay the passage of the legislation.

In an interesting footnote to the saga, Lord Gordon Borrie, chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, revealed that News International – NewsCorp’s British newspaper stable – had written to peers telling them to vote against Puttnam’s compromise amendment. As Murdoch has repeatedly denied any intention of buying Five, some observers wonder why NI should take so keen an interest.

• Separately, the government did agree to amend a different section of the Bill after complaints it would adversely affect local radio.

The British Phonographic Industry warned that allowing US companies to buy local radio stations could lead to American music dominating such broadcasters’ playlists.

As a result, culture minister Baroness Tessa Blackstone told the House of Lords that the Bill would be altered to give Ofcom greater powers to protect local content.

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