Prime Minister Tony Blair has been plunged into a head-on row with editors after his Government rebuffed fears that its new media laws would threaten press freedom.
National and regional newspapers have joined forces to urge ministers to abandon a plan to give new media regulator Ofcom a controversial role overseeing the press.
When newspaper mergers are mooted, Ofcom will advise on how they will affect the “accurate presentation of news” and “free expression of opinion”.
That has sparked widespread alarm that it could lead to newspaper content coming under the influence, and eventually the regulation, of a government-backed watchdog.
Editors’ concerns have been heightened by the fact that Ofcom’s main role will be to regulate broadcasters and it has no experience of the newspaper industry.
The Daily Mail, the Mirror and The Sun have all run powerful leaders urging the government to drop the proposal from the communications bill. Regional newspapers and the Newspaper Society have also lobbied for changes.
But when Shadow Media Secretary John Whittingdale raised the newspaper industry’s concerns in the Commons committee scrutinising the bill, competition minister Stephen Timms rejected them and whipped Labour MPs to back the Government.
With Liberal Democrat MPs also siding with the Government, MPs endorsed the key clause by 12 votes to four.
Timms’ only concession – to the LibDems – was to rule that Ofcom’s advice to the Secretary of State would be made public.
“It will be published for all to see and, as always, the Secretary of State will make a decision based on it,” he said.
The minister denied press freedom was in danger. “We are certainly not attempting to subvert press freedom or subjugate the press to the whims of politicians,” he stressed.
“It is not a means of introducing statutory regulation of the newspaper industry through the back door.”
But Whittingdale said: “The idea that a regulator should begin to take an interest in the content of newspapers is alarming.
“It has given rise to fears about what role Ofcom might take in advising the Secretary of State.
“To allow a body whose remit includes content regulation for broadcasters to get involved in matters relating to newspaper content is dangerous.”
But Timms insisted: “As the independent regulator, Ofcom is the body best placed to advise the Secretary of State on specified newspaper public interest considerations.”
On the government’s instructions, MPs also rejected an amendment to exclude small local newspapers from the regime. Whittingdale warned that several local newspapers feared that including them in the regime would deter much-needed investment.
By David Rose