UK Media Mergers: Has Blair Outflanked Murdoch?

07 January 2004

It could be that widespread concerns over a media consolidation feeding-frenzy following the introduction of the new Communications Act were unfounded.

It may also that the Blair administration has elegantly outflanked the media barons on whose editorial support it relies for re-election, by giving the last word on media mergers to new supra-regulator Ofcom.

Alternatively, some Byzantine theorists might believe the proposed wide-ranging criteria to be applied to such mergers, published Monday as a consultation document by Ofcom in its first week of office, is nothing more than elaborate window dressing.

Time will tell. But the proposed rules are evidently not to the liking of Rupert Murdoch, to whose views his editors invariably pay dutiful attention.

Tuesday's The Times, for example.

Among the thunderings of Murdoch's earthly representative: " ... a potential mountain of red tape that could stifle a government commitment to make mergers easier …
seek an unprecedented amount of information …
the watchdog will look at an acquiring company’s track record on editorial interference, as well as the political allegiance of would-be proprietors …
the employment history of the acquiring owner, including newspaper and media-related employment …
a deterrent to potential acquisitions of UK media assets."

And worse yet: "Analysts [unnamed] suggest that the plans could derail efforts by Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express, to buy the Daily Telegraph."

A more measured response came from David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society, representing the regional press, who mildly opined that the proposals seemed a “very mechanistic process for looking at media mergers”.

Under the provisions of the Communications Act, the trade and industry secretary of the day will have authority to intervene in media mergers if he or she believes public interest considerations are involved. Should such intervention take place, Ofcom will be required to review the details of a proposed acquisition according to the criteria -- in whatever form they are finally adopted.

In such circumstances the consultation document proposes that Ofcom also satisfies itself as to the following ...

• Analysis of advertising content and how ratio of editorial and advertising might change after a merger.
• Whether editor and reporting staff are likely to keep their jobs after a merger and any plans to change pay levels.

• How ITV and Five will contribute to the Act’s public service requirements.
• How people are employed in regions and the extent to which programme decisions are taken by people employed within the region.

• Details on hours of locally produced, automated and syndicated programmes.
• Hours per week of local news.

Data sourced from: Times Online (UK); additional content by WARC staff