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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 07:04 GMT 08:04 UK
Broadcasting's 'battle for Britain'
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

Family watching television
A diet of Disney alone is not good for children, say Lib Dems

British identity is at stake when peers debate plans to shake-up broadcasting laws on Tuesday, says a leading Liberal Democrat peer.

Tom McNally, his party's Lords media spokesman, told BBC News Online he fears the current proposals risk UK television and radio being Americanised.

The Communications Bill, which starts its committee stage in the Lords on Tuesday, would allow big newspaper groups, like Rupert Murdoch's, to buy Channel 5, and non-European companies to buy ITV and Channel 5 franchises.

But Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell denied "conspiracy theories" that the bill was about Rupert Murdoch - saying that it also cleared the way for the owners of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror.

I want my children to see children's programmes which have definite British content and identity because that's part of their cultural heritage
Lord McNally
Lib Dem peer

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the aim was to liberalise ownership rules while tightening "quality control" to avoid the apparent decline in quality seen after deregulation in the US.

The government says it will provide "lighter touch" regulation from new agency Ofcom, making the communications industry more dynamic and competitive.

The Conservatives support the foreign ownership changes and want the government to go further in liberalising markets, relying on competition as the best regulator.

Such divisions between the opposition parties may make the bill's passage easier. But Lord McNally, a Downing Street adviser during the Callaghan government, predicts many peers will not follow the party line.

He will be surprised if the government does not suffer Lords defeats on the new rules foreign and cross-media ownership.

Imports flood?

Culture is about national identity and home grown talent, argues the peer, "and it's those things that are at stake if you open up the flood gates without proper protection".

Tory Lords spokeswoman Baroness Buscombe says there is no reason to fear Americanisation because commercial companies cannot afford to ignore consumer demand.

And the government argues the UK can get the best of both worlds, American money for British standards.

But Lord McNally, a member of the committee headed by film maker Lord Puttnam which examined the bill, says big global companies do not share British priorities.

In arguing that a discerning public will get what they want, there is a danger they will instead want what they get, he suggests.

Lord McNally, Lib Dem peer
McNally wants new safeguards on press regulation too

"I enjoy the Simpsons as much as anybody and Disney makes some terrific children's programmes," he says.

"But I want my children to see children's programmes which have definite British content and identity because that's part of their cultural heritage.

"That sounds very stuffy, but children growing up on a diet of Disney and Fox are not going to benefit as much as those with access to genuinely British made programmes."

The integrity of news is another key Lib Dem concern.

Power focus

Another concern has been the implications of this bill for Rupert Murdoch's media empire's ambitions in the UK.

The government says the bill is not about favours for anybody and is "proprietor neutral".

Lord McNally notes Mr Murdoch's "very great access" to Downing Street but says that whatever the origins, the outcome is clear.

It would be an "outrage" if a bill about competition saw too much power concentrated in the hands of any one company.

The Tories argue that opening up Channel 5, but not ITV, to possible cross-media ownership seems arbitrary and discriminatory.

Rupert Murdoch
The government says the bill is not about favours for anyone

But it does allow the government to argue the controversy affects a channel with an audience share of just 6%.

Lord McNally is unpersuaded, maintaining that Ofcom should at least be able to review whether such cross-media takeovers are in the public interest.

"Mr Murdoch bought a very small circulation Fleet Street newspaper called The Sun and then proceeded to transform the standards and the norms of Fleet Street by what he turned the Sun into," he recalls.

Editors' protests

On the newspaper front, the Lib Dems also want Ofcom to supervise the Press Complaints Commission.

The move would boost public confidence in the complaints process, he says.

He likens many editors' reaction to the idea of Violet Elizabeth Bott of the Just William stories: "They squeamed, and they squeamed and they squeamed."

Baroness Buscombe, Tory spokeswoman
Buscombe: Competition puts trust in consumers

The decision not to include the BBC fully under Ofcom's remit has unsurprisingly provoked controversy.

For the Tories, Lady Buscombe has baulked at this special treatment.

She says that for Ofcom to be efficient and fair, it must be "uncompromised by a different set of rules and a different timetable for the broadcaster with by far the biggest market share".

Lord McNally says the argument should be left until the BBC's charter is reviewed in 2006.

He says the system created in the 1920s created an "ingenious cordon sanitaire" which has protected the BBC from being seen as the creature of any party.

He wants to safeguard the BBC's position as "standard setter and pioneer" for UK public service broadcasting.

"We are not willing to see the BBC driven back into a kind of public service ghetto in the way that Australia or Canada or the United States have public service broadcasting as a small part of their broadcasting ecology."

He would rather the BBC go into the charter debate "accused of populism but essentially doing a lot of things very well", than without public support for the licence fee.

Despite the arguments, both the government and Ofcom want the Communications Bill passed with minimum delay.

But in words appropriate to a battle for national identity, Lord McNally says the Lords will do its duty.

Tessa Jowell MP, Culture Secretary
"The objective is to maximise the investment that is available to British programming"

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