Despite attempts to steamroller its Communications Bill through the House of Lords, the Blair administration has granted two extra days to the seven already tabled for the upper chamber to debate the controversial legislation.
In the first two days of its passage, only thirty of the bill’s four-hundred clauses have been debated. And now New Labour peer Lord David Puttnam – who headed the joint parliamentary committee charged with scrutinizing the bill – is again raising politically inconvenient questions.
On Thursday he warned the House that OfCom (the new media, telecoms and internet supra-regulator responsible for policing the bill) could be “facing a black hole at the centre of the regulatory universe”.
Although he mentioned no names, Puttnam fears that unless the body is buttressed by substantial funding, deep-pocketed media giants – such as News Corporation, Disney or Viacom – could pre-empt any Ofcom decision they might dislike with threats to pursue their case through the courts to the highest level.
There is, said Puttnam, “an even denser black hole” as to who would foot the bill to argue for a challenged decision. “Who stands behind the regulator in the event of a counter-suit from a regulated business?” he asked.
But some peers believe that eventuality is already covered by the Ofcom Act 2001 which confers discretion on the Treasury to make specific grants.
Meantime, ministers are getting twitchy as the bill’s passage slows in the face of persistent filibustering by opponents of media ownership deregulation. A Lords vote is now unlikely before mid-June and the government must present by mid-July its order of business for the ensuing parliamentary session.
This tight timetable could prod the administration into unusual amiability to their Lordships’ amendments. If it misses its early autumn slot in the legislative schedule, the much vaunted Communications Bill is in danger of becoming a parrot of the highly deceased variety.
Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff