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-
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