Cross-media Ownership

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 23rd May 1995.

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Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith Shadow Secretary of State 3:31 pm, 23rd May 1995

I welcome the document, which is long overdue. Why has there been such a long delay? In particular, why could we not have heard these announcements before the Channel 5 process was put in hand, rather than after?

Opposition Members welcome the broad, long-term approach of viewing the whole spread of the media, adopting a points system to do so, and insisting that no one company can secure a dominant position. While the principles set out by the Government in the document are broadly right, however, we believe that the practice leaves much to be desired.

Does the Secretary of State understand that he is putting enormous power into the hands of his proposed independent regulator? That regulator will have very wide discretion: he or she will have the power to make or break companies. The regulator will determine what happens to the ownership of national newspapers and television stations. But who appoints the regulator? Who will it be, and to whom will that person be accountable? Those are crucial questions, which the document leaves up in the air.

We believe that the regulator must not be "doubled up" with the Director General of Fair Trading or the ITC. Given the enormous scope and importance of the regulator's role, this must be the only thing that he or she does: he or she must not be moonlighting from other private or public responsibilities.

May we also have an assurance that the normal operation of competition policy through the Monopolies and Mergers Commission will continue alongside the new rules? Surely both must apply: one must not be a substitute for the other.

How has the Secretary of State arrived at his inadequate definition of the public interest, which will be the regulator's crucial remit? I carefully searched paragraph 6.19 of the document for the Government's definition. Diversity, accuracy, economic benefit and efficiency are all rightly included, but I sought in vain for one crucial and overwhelmingly important word—"quality". Surely quality of programme making must be at the top of the list of criteria.

In the more immediate future, is there not also a serious danger of a flurry of takeover and merger activity for hitherto independent ITV stations? If national newspaper companies with a national focus and interests seek to take over regional ITV stations, will there not be a serious danger of harming the regional character of those stations?

A sense of regional identity has been one of the glories of the ITV network since its inception. Is not the Secretary of State putting that at risk? What safeguards will he put in place? Why does the document contain no specific provisions in relation to foreign-owned media companies? Surely precisely the same rules should apply across the board, whether companies are foreign or domestically owned.

What account have the Government taken of the future of community radio stations which may lose out as new radio licences go to bigger commercial companies? There is nothing necessarily wrong with commercial radio expanding, but surely there must be simultaneous provision to protect community radio interests. Why is the document silent on conditional access and the power of media gatekeeping? It states that that issue caused concern during the consultations, but why do the Government proposals not address it at all?

Why does the entire document have about it the sense that it is trying to legislate for an old era rather than a new? It deliberately excludes digital terrestrial television, says little about subscription services, and does not address the vital issue of access by the public to broadcast sports events. Those are the new growth areas of the media world, and they are remarkable by their relative absence from the document.

The principles are surely clear. They are: diversity, plurality, quality and the best possible programmes for the viewer and listener. The rules are to make sure that there is not excessive dominance by any one commercial provider. The Government have set out some of that in their document, but there is a trail of unanswered questions and concerns over much of the detail. Ultimately, the document will not do much to benefit the ordinary viewer and listener.