Puttnam: heads select committee
Concern by national and regional newspaper publishers that this could undermine self-regulation was swept aside by an influential committee of MPs and peers which backed new merger controls by the Government.
The joint media select committee, headed by film-maker Lord Puttnam, instead urged the Government to strengthen proposed new legislation by introducing a new plurality test which would be defined as "the promotion and maintenance, in all media, including newspapers, of a balanced and accurate presentation of news, the free expression of opinion, and a clear differentiation between the two."
News International, Trinity Mirror, and the Newspaper Society had argued that Ofcom – largely aimed at the broadcast industry – could end up interfering in newspaper editorial decisions, threatening the role of the Press Complaints Commission.
They wanted responsibility to continue to lie with the Department of Trade and Industry rather than Ofcom when it assumes its powers next year.
PCC director Guy Black said: "As far as we’re aware there has never been a suggestion that Ofcom should become involved in editorial regulation and it’s hugely important that that should remain the position."
The select committee’s only concession to the industry was to apparently underline a suggestion by Harvey Kass of Associated Newspapers that the test should encompass views expressed across all media and relate to the long-term interest of the newspapers subject to merger.
In its long-awaited report the committee, which has been examining the draft communications bill, acknowledged that, as far as newspapers were concerned, "the most controversial aspect is the intention that Ofcom will be the main source of advice to the Secretary of State in reaching a decision on public interest grounds".
It said: "The newspaper groups argued that Ofcom had no business commenting on newspapers. It would have no real understanding of the distinctive culture and character of newspapers, particularly at local level."
But the committee told Media Secretary Tessa Jowell and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt that, while it had considered the concerns raised by newspapers, it considered that Ofcom would "be able to develop sufficient expertise in media markets and plurality issues to make it well-placed to perform the advisory role envisaged".
However, the committee urged that plans to allow Rupert Murdoch and other foreign media groups to buy a controlling stake in Channel 5 should be put on ice until Ofcom had carried out a review.
But Whitehall quickly made clear that the government intended dismissing this proposal and would include plans to open up British TV to non EU-ownership in its main bill in the autumn.
By David Rose