8 July 2003
by Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent
On both sides of the Atlantic the
question of who owns our media is a hot political
Last week the government in Britain climbed down in
its confrontation with a majority of peers, led by
Lord Puttnam, over changes to the rules on media
ownership in the Communications Bill.
Across the water a Senate committee is locked in
conflict with the Federal Communications Commission
over the same issue: the senators want to reverse a
sweeping liberalisation of ownership rules announced
last month by the FCC.
In Westminster and Washington alike there are fears
that allowing the biggest media companies to gobble up
yet more TV and radio stations, and combine
broadcasting and newspaper interests, gives them too
much market power and too much political leverage.
In both countries Rupert Murdoch - who controls the
Fox Network and Fox News in the US, BSkyB and four
national newspapers in Britain - is a particular
bugbear for opponents of liberalisation.
In both countries economic liberals see deregulation
of media ownership as a way of encouraging investment
and of benefiting those companies which have got where
they are by manifestly giving consumers what they want
- of rewarding success in the market.
Social liberals see deregulation as concentrating too
much power in the hands of media organisations and
media moguls with a predominantly conservative
outlook, threatening the diversity of views and voices
and damaging the interests of citizens.
But there are some differences.
In Britain for instance there is a fear that the media
giants doing the gobbling are most likely to be
American, not home-grown, and that their involvement
threatens the production of distinctively British
And in the States they're worried that more
consolidation could signal the end of what remains of
local control and local content in American TV and
In Britain, Lord Puttnam and his fellow Labour rebels
(not to mention Tories, Liberal Democrats and
crossbenchers) inflicted one defeat on the government
in the Lords when they amended the Communications Bill
to give the new regulator, Ofcom, an overriding duty
to promote the interests of citizens, not just
The government may yet reverse this, not least because
Ofcom's chairman, Lord Currie, is himself strongly
opposed to it.
A second defeat was in the offing when the government
caved in. US-owned companies will still be allowed to
take over ITV. Newspaper owners, including Rupert
Murdoch, will still be allowed to buy Channel 5.
But first they must persuade Ofcom that any merger or
takeover would not reduce the plurality and diversity
of British media.
(The exact wording of the clause still has to be
agreed - which means there is still the possibility of
the deal between Puttnam and the culture secretary
Tessa Jowell collapsing.)
In America the FCC voted by a 3-2 majority
(Republicans versus Democrats) to raise the cap on the
number of television stations one company can own both
locally and nationally.
If the national limits had not been increased both
Viacom, which owns the CBS network, and Fox would have
been forced to sell stations to bring them in line
with the previous rules.
The FCC also scrapped some rules preventing
cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations
and redrafted radio ownership rules so that the
country's largest radio company, Clear Channel, which
exceeded the existing limits, would no longer have to
sell any of its stations.
The FCC's chairman, Michael Powell (son of Colin),
argued that without the liberalisation free-to-air
television would be threatened by growing competition
from largely unregulated cable companies.
Critics of the changes have pointed to the failure of
news and current affairs programmes on the big three
networks, ABC (owned by Disney), CBS (owned by Viacom)
and NBC (owned by General Electric), to cover the
issue in any detail as evidence of the stultifying
effect on news and comment which consolidation of
media ownership may have.
The Senate Commerce committee is now trying to reverse
many of the changes, and introduce some more of its
own - like a new rule requiring TV stations to
broadcast a minimum percentage of locally-produced
And the committee has an unlikely array of supporters,
including not just liberal outfits like the Consumers
Union but also right-wing lobby groups like the
National Rifle Association, equally worried by the
homogenization of the media.
It's not yet clear who will win the tussle between the
FCC and the Senate: much may depend on how much
support - not much, it's said - the Senate committee
can generate among members of its equivalent in the
House of Representatives.
But in Britain it seems those who want to protect
diversity and the citizen's interest have won at least
a partial victory.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2003/07/08 14:29:06 GMT
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