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Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 11:29 GMT
Communications Bill battle begins
House of Lords
The bill could face a fight in the House of Lords
Nick Higham

At last the Communications Bill has appeared - 395 clauses, 19 schedules, 543 pages, and a further 268 pages of explanatory notes. And they call it deregulation!

The bill's reception was muted. After a white paper, a draft bill and detailed scrutiny by a joint parliamentary committee chaired by Lord Puttnam, much of what is in the bill is wearisomely familiar to the broadcasting and communications industries.

There were a few changes from the draft version. The rules on how many different owners of commercial radio there must be in any given area have been altered - no longer three plus the BBC, but two.

The change pleased the commercial stations who originally came up with the "three-plus-one" rule - only to discover the government was disposed to allow a single ITV company to emerge.

They felt it was absurd that they were being more tightly regulated than the dominant electronic medium.

There has been a change to the "must carry" rules. Digital platform owners like BSkyB will not be forced to carry public service broadcasters like the BBC at cost price.

Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam led a panel to scrutinise the bill
But the government has reserved the right to arbitrate if the two sides cannot agree a price.

A favour to Sky? Not according to the Department of Culture, which says European rules already exist requiring platform operators to rent out space at fair and non-discriminatory prices.

The definitions of what constitutes "public service" has been modified to include some extra categories of programming like science and "matters of international significance".


But the Voice of the Listener and Viewer lobbying group thinks stronger protection needs to be given to children's and regional programmes.

It is already possible to predict what some of the flashpoints will be in the bill's passage through Parliament.

In the House of Lords, many peers are unhappy at the proposed ownership rules - in particular the suggestion that newspaper owners like Rupert Murdoch should be allowed to buy Channel 5.

The suggestion that non-European companies like the American media giants should be allowed to buy ITV is also likely to meet opposition.

And consumer interests are disappointed at the degree of independence given to the consumer panel to be set up by the new super-regulator Ofcom.

Rupert Murdoch
The thought of Rupert Murdoch owning Five angers some
The panel's job will be to represent domestic and small business consumers on matters like the cost of telephone services - not, as it stands, programme content which will be the responsibility of Ofcom's content board.

The National Consumer Council believes consumers need a stronger and more independent voice and is likely to sponsor amendments to the bill to achieve that.

The bill should be on the statute book by next July.

But the intervening months promise to be thick with debate and attempts to amend a measure which is, quite simply, staggering in its size and complexity.

You can e-mail Nick Higham about this column at

This column also appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

The BBC's Nick Higham writes on broadcasting

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