asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he expects to publish the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the proposed transfer to Bristol United Press Ltd. of the newspaper West Somerset Free Press; and if he will make a statement.
The commission's report is published today.The commission concluded unanimously that the proposed acquisition by Bristol United Press Ltd. of 75 per cent. of the shares of Cox, Sons & Co. Ltd., proprietors of the
West Somerset Free Press, from Farnham Castle Newspapers Ltd., might be expected to operate against the public interest.
The report is the ninth by the commission on a newspaper transfer since control of newspaper mergers was introduced in 1965. It is the first such report in which the commission has concluded that the proposed transfer might be expected to operate against the public interest.
The commission considered whether any conditions might be attached to any consent to the transfer in order to prevent the transfer from operating against the public interest and concluded that there were no such conditions.
The commission considered that the acquisition should not be allowed mainly because of the desirability of preventing greater regional concentration of ownership of the press, and also because acquisition of the West Somerset Free Press by Bristol United Press would be less likely to lead to competition in the area than if it remained in the hands of the present owners, Farnham Castle Newspapers Ltd.
The commission stressed that in saying this it implied no criticism of either Bristol United Press or Associated Newspapers. (Under the newspaper merger provisions of the Fair Trading Act 1973 Associated Newspapers is a newspaper proprietor in relation to the newspapers of Bristol United Press and its subsidiaries.) The commission's conclusion rested not so much on the nature and behaviour of either of these two organisations as on an objection to the progressive concentration of ownership of the provincial press about which the Royal Commission on the Press in its final report of July 1977, and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in its earlier reports on specific newspaper mergers, had expressed concern.
I share the general concern of the two commissions about concentration of ownership in the provincial press. In the light of the conclusions of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in its report my right hon. Friend has decided to refuse his consent to the proposed transfer.