By David Rose
Media Secretary Tessa Jowell has plunged the Government into conflict with regional publishers by refusing to abandon discretionary powers to intervene where she fears weekly newspaper mergers endanger freedom of speech.
The Government’s hard-line stance means weekly newspaper mergers will face the threat of investigation by media regulator Ofcom, even though the only past takeovers to raise concerns over free speech have involved daily newspapers.
Lord Wakeham, former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, had pressed the Newspaper Society’s case for weekly newspapers to be excluded from the communications bill during exchanges with the Government in the Lords.
In no case, he told peers, had the Competition Commission found acquisition of local newspapers to be against the public interest on freedom of expression grounds.
In the only four cases which had arisen since 1989 where there had been concern over freedom of speech, the newspapers involved had been dailies, not weeklies.
“It is hard to see that past cases point to a continuing need for ministers to be able to take action against local weekly newspapers to protect freedom of expression, accurate presentation of news, and plurality of views,” Lord Wakeham told peers.
“It would save the Government or Ofcom money in having to investigate these tiny newspapers. It would save the newspapers a considerable amount of expense which is not required on competition grounds.”
Lord Wakeham’s plea was backed by Tory peers. Baroness Buscombe, Shadow media minister, said it was “unnecessary” for weekly newspapers to be included and could add “considerable cost to the local press” if they were subject to any investigation.
But Lord Davies, Labour’s deputy chief whip in the Lords, rejected the plea.
“Discretionary intervention in cases where genuine concerns have been raised represents the best balance between protecting the public interest and ensuring that regulation is not excessive,” Lord Davies said.
“The simple fact is that the vast majority of local titles are weekly. To exclude such titles from the protections offered by the proposals would amount to a grave disservice to local communities.”
The Government’s move rules out any changes being made to the bill before it becomes law next week.
However, the Newspaper Society intends to continue its campaign. Lord Wakeham, on its behalf, will now write to the Government seeking further assurances about the way the Government intends using its discretionary powers.
Santha Rasaiah, Newspaper Society political, legal and regulatory affairs director, told Press Gazette that the NS wanted assurances that any intervention would only occur in “rare and exceptional cases” and would not take place as a matter of routine.