Media Secretary Tessa Jowell has dealt media chiefs a fresh blow by revealing the earliest date cross-media ownership rules can be eased will be mid-2003.
Jowell won her battle with business managers to introduce a six-clause bill to set up the new communications regulator Ofcom.
But while Ofcom will be allowed to shadow existing regulators, such as the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Comm-ission and Oftel, it will not have any powers until the main communications bill becomes law.
And in an explanatory note, Jowell told peers the earliest this could be expected was mid-2003.
If the bill is introduced late in the session, Royal Assent could be delayed until October or November that year.
The Government also came under fire this week for its plan to exclude the BBC from the full regulation of Ofcom. Broadcasting minister Kim Howells clashed with Tory Shadow Media Secretary Peter Ainsworth when he asked at media questions what the point was of reform if the BBC, with almost 40 per cent of audience share, was excluded. Howells told him: "We never promised to include the regulation of the BBC – or, at least the core of BBC regulation – as part of that new legislation."
Jowell’s admission about the timing of the bill means any liberalisation of media ownership rules will not get government approval until three years after the communications white paper invited the industry to present its case for reform.
Peers will be asked to vote on the second reading of the office of communications bill on 15 October, the first day Parliament reassembles after its three-month summer break.
But the main communications bill is being delayed to allow ministers to outline their ownership proposals in a draft bill next year. Publishers will then be consulted over a three-month period before final decisions are made.
The delay is bound to fuel suspicions Tony Blair has shunted the media ownership issue into the slow lane because of the possibility of a referendum on the euro. While Rupert Murdoch’s Sun is hostile to the euro, BSkyB wants to move into terrestrial television.
Publishers will look for assurances Ofcom will not threaten self-regulation of the newspaper industry. There will also be concern over the effect it could have on newspaper websites.
By David rose