HC Deb 13 May 2002 vol 385 cc487-8
2. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

What her policy is on ownership of terrestrial television channels by media conglomerates. [53963]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

As my hon. Friend knows, proposals for the reform of media ownership rules were published last week, alongside the draft Communications Bill. Our proposals mean that there will be at least three public service television broadcasters in separate ownership. We are clear that competition rules will be our main policy lever for influencing the ownership of media, but with specific additional rules for the ownership of terrestrial television. Those rules follow from the basic principle that the media, more than any other industry, underpin our democracy and the culture of debates in this country. They will mean that the owners of the largest newspaper groups—those with more than a 20 per cent. share of the national circulation—cannot buy an ITV licence or acquire a large stake in any ITV company. That will prevent a single owner from owning too large a share of the nation's democratic debate. ITV currently has more than a quarter of the share of television viewing, is universally available, and has substantial public service broadcasting obligations.

Mr. Cousins

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, but she will, of course, appreciate that British terrestrial television has been financially weakened by recent events, that Rupert Murdoch is now the gatekeeper to the digital age, and that her proposals weaken ownership controls and open up British television to those whose tax is paid—if it is paid at all—and whose policy is set from outside the United Kingdom. Under those circumstances, will the power to vary licences be robust enough to protect Britain's cultural identity and the cultural identity of its nations and regions, and will that power be used robustly?

Tessa Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It does not matter where a company is based: if it buys into British television, it will be subject to UK regulation, both in relation to the terms of licences and the regulation of content. It is important to be clear about the extent to which content regulation will accompany the great liberalisation and deregulation of the proposals that we published last week: the content board of Ofcom; the general public service remit, which will be held by Ofcom; the definition of public service broadcasting; the definition of the regional character of local services; the nominated news provider; the insistence on adequate funding of Channel 3 news; Ofcom's role in relation to overseeing the local content of local radio services; and Ofcom's role in relation to ensuring the accuracy and impartiality of news. The combination of deregulation will bring new inward investment to the British media industry, but the quintessential nature of British broadcasting will be protected by tough content regulation.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Would the Government be content to see the pornographer and part-time political party financier, Mr. Richard Desmond, own a television station?

Tessa Jowell

As I made perfectly clear a moment or two ago, our rules are proprietor-neutral.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Given the wide range of free-to-air and pay television channels now available on terrestrial television, why do we need a special regime to control ownership? Why cannot we simply leave ownership to existing competition law? Is not the maintenance of a special regime merely both confusing and a device for the Government to extract either political favours or financial donations?

Tessa Jowell

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman's final remarks demean him. I hope he will think very carefully about withdrawing them. The proposals are, under any scrutiny, proprietor-neutral. They have the single purpose of opening the British media market to much-needed investment from anywhere in the world, subject to the clear regulation that I set out to the House a few moments ago and last week.

The hon. Gentleman asks why we do not deregulate even further. We do not intend to deregulate further because—for the reasons that I set out a moment ago—the media are different from other industries. It is critical that we maintain the robustness of our democratic debate. Although competition law alone can certainly promote dispersed ownership and has lowered barriers to entry, there is no guarantee that competition law alone will deliver the degree of plurality on which our democracy depends.