Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is illogical to have a system of regulation that permits one national newspaper group to have significant broadcasting interests yet bars every other national newspaper group from having more than a small stake in broadcasting interests? Will he examine that problem in his review and seek to bring cross-media ownership more within the remit of general competition policy in a way that allows British media groups to compete with their international counterparts?
My hon. Friend raises one of the issues that has been at the core of the debate about the future of media ownership regulation. It would be wrong of me this afternoon to hint at the direction in which the Government plan to go. Our media ownership regulation must have two objectives: first, to safeguard plurality and diversity in our press and secondly, to allow media businesses the opportunity to develop viably and successfully.
Has the Secretary of State taken note of the massive deal that has been made between News International and the American conglomerate MCI? Has he further noted that BT is a 20 per cent. shareholder in MCI? Does he agree that it is plain daft to have a system in which BT, the British telephone company, is allowed to broadcast television to the United States; American telephone companies, as part-owners of cable companies, are allowed to broadcast television in this country; but BT, the British telephone company, is not allowed to broadcast television in its own country? Is it not intolerable that our major telephone company should be prevented by restrictive legislation from becoming a part of the information super-highway in Britain?
The right hon. Gentleman has made that point to me before and I do not agree that it is plain daft. He cogently illustrates why the policy is right. The interests of the American consumer are served by having a choice of distributors available in the American market—that is provided by encouraging British Telecom to invest in it—and the interests of the British consumer are served by having choice in the delivery of the television signal to British homes. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has made it clear that he does not propose to allow British Telecom into that market at present, in order to allow others to develop in competition with the long-term possibility that British Telecom offers.
Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman sought to catch my eye on an earlier occasion and was undoubtedly frustrated, but he is way out of order on this question. We shall pass on to Mr. Graham Allen.
Order. The question relates to cross-media ownership. I saw that the hon. Gentleman wished to intervene and was frustrated when Ealing was mentioned on an earlier question, but this is not the question to which it relates.
It is less an Ealing comedy than a Whitehall farce. The delay in the Government bringing forward their proposals on cross-media ownership has led to all sorts of difficulties, not least in the recent Channel 5 round of bids, where bidders were completely unaware of whether they would qualify, were their bid to win. Will the Secretary of State tell the House, and all those who are interested, whether he will reach a decision on cross-media ownership in the near future? Above all, will he put his proposals to the House before we leap into the next major series of changes—digital television? Those in the House and outside need to be clear whether new rules will be in place before the digital revolution allocates new channels, or will the Minister delay and create the Whitehall farce that was alluded to earlier?
I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that I hope to bring forward proposals both for the allocation of channels and ownership regulations in the digital world and dealing with media ownership issues among conventional media companies. I hope to bring forward proposals on both those matters within the next few weeks. The hon. Gentleman's charge of delay would hold a great deal more water if, at any time during the past few months, we had heard anything from the Opposition suggesting that they have reached any conclusions on those issues. They are very good at telling us that we have been delaying when we have been considering the issues in a mature fashion. However, we have had almost no advice from the Opposition about the way in which that policy should develop.