The curious eagerness of the Blair administration to allow non-EU companies (a euphemism for giant US media corporations) to acquire Britain’s non state-owned terrestrial broadcasters, ITV network and Channel 5, has provoked BBC director general Greg Dyke to add his voice to the growing chorus of concern.

Giving evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Scrutiny Committee charged with examining the government-sponsored Communications Bill, Dyke warned that programming quality would deteriorate if ownership fell into US hands.

“If Disney were to own ITV, you may see lots of cartoons dumped,” he told the thirteen-strong committee (which comprises members of the Houses of Commons and Lords). “If you allow Time Warner to own ITV, US programmes like Friends and ER will not come to market for free-to-air broadcasting.”

Dyke also added his weight to the ‘reciprocity’ argument, pointing out that US law does not permit foreign ownership of its free-to-air networks. He urged that the UK government should seek a quid pro quo before they seep away the controls.

One of the bill’s key reforms is the abolition of restrictions on ownership of commercial TV companies other than cable and satellite businesses – the exceptions already being US-controlled. Under existing law, the free-to-air channels may not be owned either by companies based outside the European Union, nor by newspaper owners irrespective of domicile who control more than 20% of the UK market.

Culture media and sport secretary Tessa Jowell argues that ‘liberalisation’ will boost inward investment in the UK. But as one seasoned observer of the media scene points out, you do not sell the family jewels unless you need the money.

Perhaps, he suggests, Britain’s trade imbalance which has continued to grow exponentially since the Blair government took office in 1997, is in danger of implosion. One estimate* puts the current national debt at over £200 billion ($300.0bn; €309.51bn), currently costing the nation £22 billion in annual interest payments; while the government’s own figures record a current account deficit of £17.4bn for 2001 alone.
*The Money Bomb (James Gibb Stuart).

Since the proposed ‘liberalisation’ was announced, senior US media executives have formed an orderly line to case Britain's TV joint– among them the head honchos of NBC and Viacom.

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