MEDIA: Time for Labour to re-think its new media policies

It is clear that the Labour Party’s new free-market media policies are both horrifying its traditional supporters, and causing bemusement among even sophisticated observers. The Duke of Wellington’s observation about his soldiers: ‘I don’t know what effect they will have on the enemy, but by God, they frighten me’ keeps springing to my mind.

It is clear that the Labour Party’s new free-market media policies are

both horrifying its traditional supporters, and causing bemusement among

even sophisticated observers. The Duke of Wellington’s observation about

his soldiers: ‘I don’t know what effect they will have on the enemy, but

by God, they frighten me’ keeps springing to my mind.



The flashpoint arrived this week with Labour’s opposition to the new ‘20

per cent’ rule in the current Broadcasting Bill - crafted by a

deregulatory Government to prevent what it judged to be undesirable

media concentration. It would stop groups which control more than 20 per

cent of national newspaper circulation from holding ITV or Channel 5

licences. The two groups debarred include Labour’s old friend Mirror

Group Newspapers and old Labour’s enemy News International, but from the

Government’s point of view this looks even-handed, rather than anti-

Murdoch.



I don’t think Labour is seeking to erase the 20 per cent limit simply to

favour Mirror Group. In fact, the controversial but pragmatic approach

is pretty much a logical outcome of preparations for power being made by

the party over the past two years. Tony Blair’s wary rapprochement with

Rupert Murdoch, and last autumn’s conference deal with BT for a wired-up

Britain were all clear signals of what was afoot.



New Labour really does believe that the media, entertainment and

communications sector represents one of Britain’s greatest

opportunities. It also recognises, in my view correctly, that it is

becoming an international business where big companies in alliances are

best placed to take risks - hence the admiration for BSkyB, increased

regard for Murdoch and lack of real warmth towards the BBC.



Labour also thinks newspapers are in long-term decline and that the new

forces moulding public opinion are TV, radio and screen-led such as the

Internet. But there are big flaws in Labour’s media approach.



The first is that it would rely far more heavily on competition law and

policing by the OFT and Monopolies and Mergers Commission. These are

imperfect weapons, not least because watchdogs tend to grind into action

after the event. Nor is it a particularly transparent process. As one

senior regulator observed to me: ‘Competition law has allowed Murdoch 37

per cent of the national newspaper market’.



Secondly, Labour wants to move towards one very powerful

media/communications regulator devised along the lines of America’s

Federal Communications Commission. Finally, I think Labour is letting

its industrial logic forget some hard truths: it was only four years ago

that a certain Murdoch tabloid was able to crow ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won

It’.



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