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Wednesday, 20 June, 2001, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Communications Bill's likely tasks
The bill will address a threatened
The bill will address a threatened "digital divide"
The Communications Bill, the most significant piece of media legislation since 1990, was detailed in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday.

It will create a new over-arching regulator for the broadcasting and telecommunications industries and is expected to relax the rules on ownership of ITV

The bill is a partnership between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - headed by recent appointee Tessa Jowell - and the Department of Trade and Industry, with Patricia Hewitt newly promoted to its helm.

Tessa Jowell
Looking up: Jowell is new culture secretary
The new bill - especially the establishment of new regulator Ofcom - is designed so the industry can be ruled with a "lighter touch" and give companies a chance to work with "responsible freedom".

Ofcom will replace the Independent Television Commission, the Office of Telecommunications, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Radio Authority.

It is intended to become a one-stop shop for dealing with complaints, and will be in place by the end of 2003.

Commercial broadcasters wanted the BBC to play by the same rules and come under Ofcom's watch - but it is expected that the BBC will stay under the regulation of its board of governors.

Merger possibilities

Last year's Communications white paper - on which the bill is based - appeared to give the go-ahead for ITV to be run by a single company.

The ITV network is currently divided into two super companies, Granada Media and Carlton Communication, which own all of the other small, regional companies, such as HTV Wales, Meridian and Anglia.

But the government is expected to scrap a rule which prevents one ITV company from controlling more than 15% of the total audience and revoke a rule preventing one company running the two existing London ITC companies.

ITN
ITN ownership rules may be changed
The move could see a single company operating all of the ITV network for the first time.

But any merger between ITV companies would still be subject to examination under the merger provisions of the Fair Trading Act.

ITN could also be subject to a take-over by Carlton and Granada, who currently own a maximum allowable 20% share each.

A similar loosening of restrictions could affect the radio market.

The number of players in that market could be reduced from 12 to as few as three, analysts say.

One of the biggest grey areas in the bill is how cross-media ownership rules will change, and whether companies like Mr Murdoch's News Corp will be able to increase their stake in TV, radio and newspaper companies.

On hold

Some reports have said this part of the bill had been left unwritten until after the election for fear of offending powerful proprietors.

It has been suggested that this part may be put on hold - possibly until after a euro referendum - so as not to incur the wrath of Mr Murdoch.

Rupert Murdoch
Murdoch: Held talks at Downing Street
His four national newspapers - The Sun, The News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times - all supported Tony Blair during the election campaign but may not be so sympathetic toward a euro Yes vote.

Mr Murdoch was seen visiting Downing Street just five days after Labour's election victory.

Current rules prevent any newspaper proprietor who owns more than 20% of the market taking charge of more than 20% of terrestrial TV and national radio stations.

Mr Murdoch currently controls 34% of the national and Sunday newspaper market.

Free-to-air

The government has also committed itself to ensuring there is no "digital divide" between those with access to new information services and those without.

TV channels that are currently free to air - BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C in Wales - will remain free to viewers whether they are broadcast on digital terrestrial, cable or satellite.

December's white paper said other services, such as digital subscription services, should be available at an "affordable" price - but former culture secretary Chris Smith said in February that the government would not subsidise set-top boxes.

Despite its size and scope, there is a chance that the Communications Bill could be overtaken in the legislative schedule by public service priorities.

One commentator recently said: "Anything containing the words health, education or transport has pushed itself to the top of the queue."


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See also:

17 Jun 01 | Business
Business high on legislative agenda
08 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Broadcasting bill under spotlight
12 Dec 00 | Business
Media reform heralds single ITV
11 Jun 01 | TV and Radio
Tessa tackles in-tray
12 Dec 00 | UK Politics
No 'digital divide' under Labour
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