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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 13:30 GMT
Media rules to be pushed through
Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News International
New ownership laws could attract Rupert Murdoch
Laws to relax the rules on media ownership will be pushed through by the government despite concerns, the Queen's Speech has confirmed.

Controversial plans to allow companies from outside Europe to buy UK terrestrial television and radio stations will "promote competition and investment", the speech said.

The Queen delivering the Queen's Speech
The Queen delivered the speech on Wednesday
The changes, to be included in the Communications Bill, come despite fears that US TV shows could flood schedules if a US company bought into a UK broadcaster.

The Queen's Speech also confirmed that a new "super-regulator", Ofcom, would oversee the whole communications sector.

Ofcom will become the first watchdog to have the power to fine the BBC if it breaks taste and decency rules, but the government promises greater freedom for self-regulation for public service broadcasters "in certain areas".

The speech said: "Legislation will be brought forward to reform the broadcasting and telecommunications industry by promoting competition and investment and giving powers to the Office of Communications (Ofcom)."

The government added that there would be "significant deregulation" of media ownership constraints.

Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam raised concerns about the proposals
That would mean a company like Rupert Murdoch's News International, Disney or AOL Time Warner could buy into a UK commercial broadcaster.

But the government attempted to reassure viewers, MPs and the industry that rules would be put in place to safeguard diversity in TV and radio schedules.

They would ensure "the vibrancy of democratic debate", they said.

The assurances come after a joint committee of peers and MPs expressed concern about the plans when they were included in the Draft Communications Bill.

The committee, headed by film director Lord Puttnam, said there had to be evidence that allowing foreign media companies into the UK would work.

We are not going to see the X Files replacing Coronation Street on ITV

Conor Dignam
Broadcast magazine
There would be a sophisticated attempt by foreign owners to shift expectations "away from domestic content produced primarily with a British audience in mind, towards a more US or internationally focused product mix", its report said.

Among the Draft Communications Bill's proposals were that large newspaper groups, such as News International, would be able to buy a stake in Five, previously Channel 5.

Viewers are unlikely to see changes for some time, according to industry experts.

"We are not going to see the X Files replacing Coronation Street on ITV," Conor Dignam, editor of trade magazine Broadcast, said.

US companies would not "rush in" to the UK market, he said, adding that the changes could result in more funds and opportunities for producers.

The legislation is expected to put independent producers in a stronger position to make shows for the BBC, ITV and other channels.

'Throttling creativity'

The Liberal Democrat media spokesman, Nick Harvey, said the government was introducing the ownership changes too soon.

"We would have some very real concerns about the impact it would have in thwarting and throttling British creativity," he told BBC News Online.

But shadow culture minister John Whittingdale said: "We will be pressing for further relaxation of the rules, while at the same time arguing for the BBC to be subject to the same regulatory regime as other broadcasters.

Programme standards will be monitored by Ofcom, which is due to take over from the five watchdogs in the TV, radio and telecommunications sectors.

The body would usher in a "new, more coherent structure" for broadcasting regulation in the digital age, the government said.

The legislation will require Ofcom to set up a board to ensure that the public interest is protected, and a consumer panel to tell Ofcom its views on major issues.

The Communications Bill is also likely to prompt a flurry of mergers and takeovers in the radio market, and could mean that some local commercial radio stations will disappear.

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See also:

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