EDITORIAL: Jury is still out on draft Comms Bill

With the party conference season just around the corner, Britain's communications, and in particular broadcast, communities are gearing up for the latest lobbying round in the lengthy passage of the Communications Bill.

The opportunity for official contribution to Lord Puttnam's ground breaking pre-legislative committee may be well and truly closed, but this race is far from over, and with so many areas of the draft Bill still requiring clarification the real business of lobbying has only just begun.

News that the Producers' Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT) - one of the most vocal and effective lobbyists in the broadcast community - is stepping up its public affairs activity and has made two significant appointments in the policy and media relations field, indicates that the fight has only just begun.

The body - which represents thousands of independent producers in the TV sector - has its own agenda to push when trying to influence the Bill.

Most of all it seeks to ensure that a fair and competitive market is engineered for producers and broadcasters to conduct business.

Crucial to the Bill is the loosening of ownership rules to enable foreign media owners to buy into the UK market. Rupert Murdoch is widely anticipated to make a bid for Channel 5, and the Bill also paves the way for a single ITV, an attractive prospect for potential overseas investors.

Early indications are that Tessa Jowell has heeded Puttnam's and the industry lobbyist's alarm about a potential flooding of the market with US imports and, as a result, foreign buyers are likely to be forced to purchase a set proportion of UK-produced programmes.

The remit of the soon-to-be-created Ofcom, however, is still up for debate, and PACT will be pushing for a focus on content creation, in addition to competition issues.

This level of activity is likely to be matched if not exceeded by those with a stake in other aspects of the legislation. And the BBC, which is now coming under fire almost daily, could almost be forgiven for adopting a siege mentality, as commercial channels push for scrutiny of Greg Dyke's desire to meet the Corporation's public service remit and PACT pushes for it to live up to Jowell's definition of the licence fee as venture capital for creativity.

As the new parliamentary session approaches, the attention of media industry lobbyists is set to turn to the peers and MPs on those parliamentary committees asked to scrutinise the Bill line by line.

Expect to see an upsurge in lobbying activity to sway such important votes and to effect changes in the draft Bill late in the day. The future of the UK broadcasting sector is still far from set in stone.

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