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Television (Cross-Ownership)

Volume 403: debated on Monday 7 April 2003

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5.

If she will make a statement on her policy on cross-ownership rules in respect of (a) Channel 5 and (b) ITV. [107050]

The Government's policy is to deregulate where possible to promote investment and growth. However, we will retain those key ownership rules that safeguard a plurality of media voices and tough content controls to ensure quality and diversity. The Communications Bill, therefore, removes all rules on the ownership of Channel 5, which has only a 6 per cent. audience share and 80 per cent. coverage of the UK. The Bill maintains the rule that prevents a large newspaper proprietor buying into ITV, which in contrast with Channel 5 has universal access to a mass audience.

I thank the Minister for that detailed response, but is not there something illogical about her position? The logic she applies only continues if Channel 5 continues to have a small share of the audience and ITV continues to have a large share. Surely the danger is that Mr. Murdoch or one of the other big proprietors buys Channel 5 and injects money into it that leads to a big increase in audience share—the sort of audience share that she rules out for cross-media relaxation on ITV.

It is extraordinarily interesting to hear Liberal Democrat views on the important issue of cross-media ownership. On the day that they tabled amendments to the Communications Bill in Committee, they overslept and Committee members were denied the opportunity to have the debate that the hon. Gentleman is now trying to initiate rather late in the day. However, as it is the middle of the day and Liberal Democrats are awake, I can tell him that we anticipated precisely the scenario to which he refers by creating provision in the Bill for the public service broadcasting requirements on Channel 5 to be strengthened if there is a significant increase in its audience share.

Tough content controls can stand separately from ownership requirements, so why not set ITV free as well?

Because ITV has a mass audience. It covers 100 per cent. of the country and has an audience share of about 24 per cent. That may well change. It is precisely because we take a different view of media ownership than the Opposition—we believe that competition alone is not enough to safeguard plurality and diversity—that we have retained a rule restricting cross-media ownership for ITV for the reasons that I identified, but have proposed to lift that rule for Channel 5, a minority channel with a small audience share.