The president of the National Union of Journalists today warned against “sleepwalking toward a version of Berlusconi’s Britain” under a Conservative government keen to deregulate media ownership rules.
Opening the NUJ’s annual delegate meeting, James Doherty criticised the Conservative vision for the local media, saying he feared the independence of the press could be undermined if current laws preventing the creation of monopolistic media businesses were relaxed.
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Tory culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt said this week that “over-paternalistic” regulations designed for the pre-internet era should replaced with a “light-touch” approach that could keep up with the rapid pace of change in the media market.
While the Labour government currently favours new independent news consortia, funded by up to £100m a year of public money, the Conservatives believe regional news can be saved by relaxing cross media ownership rules to allow one company to run an area’s, print, TV and radio outlets.
Doherty highlighted the Italian media as an extreme example of what deregulation could lead to.
Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi controls Italy’s three biggest private television stations and, as prime minister, appoints those that run the three public stations.
Critics say Berlusconi has benefited heavily from favourable blanket media coverage media.
Doherty said: “We will not allow our press to be undermined by the threats of political expediency.
“We will not sleep-walk towards a Tory version of Berlusconi’s Britain, where the interests of the political elite are backed by the power of near monopolised media ownership.”
Despite suggesting the current model of media ownership was a “busted flush” Doherty told the conference, in Southport today, that deregulation would not improve the situation but lead to the lowering of journalistic standards.
Doherty said: “He [Hunt] contends that the only way to save local and regional news is to deregulate media ownership rules, allowing the likes of Newsquest and Trinity Mirror to merge, with further job losses, consolidation, and the emergence of ever more news factories creating homogenised output with little by the way of local accountability.”
Doherty said Hunt’s vision made Labour’s commitment to top-slice the licence fee – to fund a replacement for local news on ITV – look like “the thin end of the wedge”.
He said: “His [Hunt’s] commitment is to ‘strip away the regulations in the same way that the Big Bang revolution made the City to make it a financial centre of the world.’
“There is not even a hint of irony. After all, we all know that light-touch regulation of the City, initiated by the Tories and continued by Labour has done so much for the health and wealth of this great nation.”