Queen's Speech sets 2003 target for Ofcom


Publishers are preparing for a fresh battle with Whitehall and the BBC after the Prime Minister signalled he was ready to consider relaxing the laws on cross-media ownership.

The Queen’s Speech confirmed that legislation will be presented to Parliament to pave the way for the establishment of new media regulator Ofcom by 2003.

And Whitehall confirmed a draft bill would set out the Government’s decisions on whether, and if so, how cross-media ownership rules should be relaxed.

But publishers may still have a battle on their hands as the Government announced it would consult them further in the autumn after the bill has been presented by new Media Secretary Tessa Jowell.

Even then, legislation will not be presented to Parliament until the next parliamentary session opens in November 2002.

To ensure Ofcom is established on target by 2003, ministers may bring forward a short bill during the present 17-month session.

The Government’s delay in reaching decisions has sparked controversy that the Prime Minister is fearful of offending media tycoon Rupert Murdoch in the run-up to the euro referendum expected in autumn 2002.

This provoked a warning from former Media Secretary Chris Smith. He said: "I’m pleased big business can speak to Labour and a Labour Government. What no government must ever do is to be in hock to one interest group rather than another."

Civil servants expect decisions on cross-media ownership to be taken by Downing Street rather than by departmental ministers.

But Jowell has also aroused concern by appointing former BBC head of political research Bill Bush as her special adviser. The BBC told the Commons media select committee it was opposed to relaxing the present rules which bar a national or regional newspaper with 20 per cent of the market from owning a national or regional terrestrial television channel.

The Government invited publishers and broadcasters to submit their views and suggestions when it published its Communications White Paper before Christmas.

Santha Rasaiah, head of political, editorial and regulatory affairs at the Newspaper Society, said: "The Newspaper Society looks forward to the publication of the draft consultative bill and the legislation which is subsequently brought forward, which must address fully the industry’s case for liberalisation of both the newspaper transfer and cross-media ownership rules.

"There is scope within government proposals for competition reform for helpful changes to the newspaper ownership regime."

By David Rose

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