UK Government Set to Ring-fence TV from Murdoch Takeover

22 March 2002

Britain's TV stations – especially the ITV network and Channel 5 – are likely to be ring-fenced by the government from takeover by certain voracious newspaper barons of Australian origin who currently reside in the US.

According to those cruising the Westminster corridors of power, the government’s long awaited Communications Bill, due to be published in May and now undergoing its [reportedly] twentieth revamp, is expected to clear the decks for consolidation within the radio and TV industries while limiting the further expansion of newspaper groups into broadcasting.

The current restrictions bar any group with more than twenty per cent of the national newspaper market from owning more than 20 per cent of a free-to-air TV or radio station. These barriers are unlikely to be lifted, insiders say, thereby preventing Rupert Murdoch from acquiring Carlton Communications, Granada Media or Channel 5 – all reportedly fixed in the media mogul’s sights.

Said one minister who did not wish to be identified: “There are real worries about newspapers getting together with radio and TV ownership because there would be difficulties as far as editorial independence was concerned.”

But, revealed a second spook, there will otherwise be fundamental changes to the law governing radio and TV mergers. Culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell has already confirmed plans to raise the threshold that prevents any one ITV company from controlling more than 15% of national audience share. Likewise, the government is also mulling changes to the radio points system, under which no single group can hold licences that represent more than 15% of total points.

Observers expect an onslaught of covert and public protest from Murdoch’s UK lieutenants – even directly from the chairman himself – as exemplified by the recent anti-euro campaigns in The Sun and The Times.

Many are asking whether the government has the backbone to stand up to such a campaign. As the Financial Times observes: “Annoying the media mogul in the run-up to a euro referendum would be a high-risk move.”

Data sourced from: Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff