Howells hints at 'U-turn'

Commercial broadcasters and newspaper publishers may be on the brink of victory in their battle to bring the BBC under the full control of Ofcom, the new media regulator .

Broadcasting minister Kim Howells signalled this week the Government was prepared to think again and give serious consideration to allowing Ofcom to intervene if the BBC failed in its role as a public service broadcaster.

His hint of a policy about-turn came after Chris Smith admitted he had changed his mind since he proposed, while Media Secretary, that backdrop powers to intervene should remain with the Secretary of State.

Smith’s Communications White Paper in December 2000 proposed that Ofcom would be able to step in if self-regulation by commercial broadcasters failed but would only allow the Government to act against the BBC.

Smith, sacked by Tony Blair in the post-election reshuffle, told MPs this week that he felt it would be better if powers were switched to Ofcom to achieve a "more level playing field between different broadcasters".

It would also be beneficial for the BBC to come under an independent regulator instead of being subject to a minister’s political judgement, he said.

Dr Howells told MPs debating the bill to set up Ofcom: "We will take that suggestion very seriously, and I am sure it will be debated when we discuss the main Communications Bill."

Regional and local newspaper publishers meanwhile stepped up their campaign to persuade the Government to scrap the special regime controlling newspaper mergers. The government has already agreed to remove legal obstacles impeding any merger between Granada and Carlton to create one ITV company.

In evidence to the Commons all-party media committee, the Newspaper Society said it was concerned that newspaper mergers would continue to be treated as a special case.

"This contrasts with the Government’s attitude to other media," Santha Rasaiah, the society’s political, editorial and regulatory affairs director, told the committee.

"Consolidation of the broadcasting media will be made easier, and local authorities and advertising agencies would no longer be prohibited from ownership or radio and television."

The society said it was also opposed to a proposal that Ofcom should be free to vet newspaper mergers.

By David Rose

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