‘Who Sought Bill’s Media Ownership Changes,’ Puttnam Asks?

26 March 2003

Lord David Puttnam, former Oscar-winning film producer, now government spokesman in the House of Lords, has questioned the motives of his own party’s ministers in introducing controversial changes to media ownership rules contained in the Communications Bill, now in passage through parliament.

Puttnam, who chaired the joint parliamentary committee charged with the bill's scrutiny, is incensed that the Blair administration has overridden the committee’s recommendations concerning media ownership.

The bill as drafted ignores the committee’s arguments and removes restrictions limiting the cross-ownership of print and broadcast media; also the ownership of terrestrial commercial TV stations by non-EU companies.

The bill will be debated in the Lords this (Wednesday)afternoon. But so passionately does Puttnam feel about the ownership issues that he spoke out ahead of the debate. Plans to open up the UK broadcast market to foreign ownership would wreak havoc on “plurality and diversity”, leading toward the “inevitable” consolidation of “conformity and power,” he opined.

Puttnam then posed the rhetorical question to which everybody in the political and media arenas knows the answer: “Where did this unwelcome provision come from? Who sought it?” he demanded.

Puttnam would battle “in every respect, the provision that would allow Five or any terrestrial channel to be wholly or partially owned by any large newspaper group”.

Abandoning all pretence as to who was in his sights, Puttnam identified News Corporation as his target. If the bill is enacted as it stands, he said, News Corporation’s ability to cross-promote across its newspapers, Five and Sky Digital platforms would be “entirely without precedent” and erode the market shares of ITV and Channel 4.

Puttnam’s stand was endorsed by Lord McNally, leader of the Lords’ sixty-strong Liberal Democrat group. MacNally voiced concerns that the bill “which tilts towards market solutions ... tilts too far”. He continued: “The big central issue is whether the bill has enough protection of public interest and public service for a bill that is deregulatory, light tough and market driven.”

A legion of other ennobled media luvvies will have their say in the debate, among them quondam BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey, former director general John Birt and BBC governor Sarah Hogg.

Former Broadcasting Standards Commission chairwoman Elspeth Howe is also expected to speak, as are commercial TV standard-bearers, United Business Media chief executive Clive Hollick, Planet 24 co-founder Waheed Alli, and TV executive-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg.

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