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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
US and UK fight media battles

by Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

On both sides of the Atlantic the question of who owns our media is a hot political issue.

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.

Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam led a rebellion over 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.

Bugbear

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.

Tessa Jowell
The woman in charge of the bill: Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell
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 programming.

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 radio.

Defeat

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 consumers.

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.

Reverse

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.

Rupert Murodch
Rupert Murdoch is in many critics' minds
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 programmes.

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.




SEE ALSO:
Lords stage media bill revolt
24 Jun 03  |  Entertainment
New hurdles for Channel 5 buy-out
02 Jul 03  |  Politics
Puttnam leads media bill rebels
26 Mar 03  |  Entertainment
Lord Puttnam: Guardian of the airwaves
04 Jul 03  |  Newsmakers


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