Leaks from within Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport suggest that the government’s upcoming Communications Bill will block Rupert Murdoch from expanding his UK satellite TV holdings into terrestrial television.

Current UK law bars media organisations that control over 20% of the national newspaper market from holding stakes greater than 20% in free-to-air TV companies and national or local radio stations. Murdoch’s News Corporation already controls over 20% of the UK market via its four national daily and Sunday titles – The Times, The Sun, News of the World and Sunday Times. It also holds a 36.3% stake in satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

Media moguls, Murdoch among them, have been hoping for a relaxation of these rules, but according to the Whitehall leaks, the majority of existing cross-media ownership restrictions will remain in place. The exception is said to be local radio – not an area of apparent interest to the Australian/American tycoon.

Ministerial fingers are crossed that retention of current cross-media ownership rules will not alienate Murdoch. The probability of a national referendum on the euro looms closer – in 2003, many believe – and the concerted opposition of the Murdoch media could have a profound effect on the outcome. Conversely, however, New Labour is eager to uphold the editorial independence of Britain’s media – in particular, television.

But according to the hints and whispers, the rules that currently restrict TV companies from covering more than 15% of the total national audience are set to be relaxed. News that will come as manna from heaven to the beleaguered ITV duo, Carlton Communications and Granada Media, who would be free to merge.

The Communications Bill is expected to be published in May following some sixteen months of consultation.

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