UK Media Ownership Compromise – All Mirrors and Smoke?

04 July 2003

The media ownership plurality test, for which Lord David Puttnam fought a long uphill battle to shoehorn into the UK Communications Bill – will be applied only cases of last resort, warned culture, media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell on Wednesday.

Implying that acceptance of the Puttnam amendment [WAMN: 03-Jul-03] was not a humilating government U-turn, senior officials spelled out that the Competition Commission remains the primary agency for scrutinising takeovers, media and otherwise. Only if the Commission or the secretary for culture, media and sport so decides, will media ownership issues be referred to Ofcom.

“The guidance published with the amendment will make it clear that we expect [the plurality test] to be used in exceptional circumstances where there is an obvious case to answer,” said an anonymous politico. “But it will not apply where there are already specific plurality rules, such as in local radio.”

The same government source insisted that the amendment will not hamper the principle of allowing American media groups to bid for ITV or enabling newspaper publishers to seek control of channel Five.

[Such reassurance is essential given the government’s hypersensitivity to the political influence wielded by Rupert Murdoch’s UK press titles – to say nothing of the indirect pressure exerted by Washington and the UK’s eyewatering historic WW1 indebtedness to the US.]

Commented Luxembourg-headquartered RTL Group, whose pan-European assets include 65% of channel Five – seen as the main target for a US takeover: “We don’t think [the amendment] affects the value of our asset because we are not sellers of the stake.”

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