THE GOVERNMENT spelled out what it termed its "radical plans to overhaul and simplify the legal framework for the media industry" yesterday.
The draft Communications Bill, which will now be subject to three months' consultation and scrutiny in Parliament, notably paved the way for non- European ownership of television stations; for a newspaper owner (such as Rupert Murdoch) to buy Channel 5; and for the BBC to be subject to scrutiny from a national regulator as well as from its own governors. It also stipulated that there must be an "adequate level of financial support for the ITV news contract".
The draft Bill allows the new media industry regulator, Ofcom, to regulate the price charged by Mr Murdoch's Sky Television to public service broadcasters for access to its system - something the terrestrial broadcasters have been demanding for some time.
But on two of the key issues, regulation of the BBC and changes in media ownership, the Government is keeping its powder dry. It will not pronounce in detail on the BBC until it undertakes a full review of the corporation. And the rules it suggests on media ownership are not actually part of the Bill, but separate proposals published alongside the draft legislation. However, media ownership rules will form part of the final Bill.
Jointly published by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, the draft Bill aims to bring the regulatory framework up-to-date, "responding to the technological and market changes driving modern media".
Ms Jowell said: "For too long the UK's media have been over- regulated and over- protected from competition. Despite this, the last 10 years have seen a dramatic increase in the range of voices in the market place.
"The draft Bill we have published will liberalise the market, so removing unnecessary regulatory burdens and cutting red tape, but at the same time retain some key safeguards that will protect the diversity and plurality of our media."
THE NEW REGULATOR
The Office for Communications (Ofcom) will replace the existing five regulators (the ITC, Radio Authority, Oftel, Broadcasting Standards Commission, Radiocommunications Agency).
It will apply a consistent scheme for regulating the public service broadcasters, with greater regulation for the BBC and more self-regulation for the others while keeping the core responsibilities of the BBC governors, with additional oversight by Ofcom, but with back-stop powers resting with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Ofcom will have powers alongside the Office of Fair Trading to apply competition rules in the communications sector. It will establish a board to ensure that the public's interest in the nature and quality of TV and radio programmes is strongly represented.
In addition, it will remove the requirement for licensing of telecommunications systems, so removing about 400 licences, and replace it with new regulations. It will also allow trading to ensure there is efficient use of the available radio spectrum.
In its final form, the Bill will reform the rules on media ownership. There will be significant deregulation to promote competition and investment, but a few core rules will be retained "to protect diversity and plurality".
The Government plans to remove most ownership rules within the TV, radio and newspaper markets where competition law tends to encourage dispersed ownership. But some will be retained as minimum guarantees of diversity.
LIMITS ON CROSS-MEDIA OWNERSHIP
Three key limits on cross-media ownership will be kept to "safeguard the vibrancy of debate at every level of society - national, regional and local".
Firstly, any newspaper group with more than 20 per cent of …