Leading Article: Use this merger to look again at TV regulation

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The Independent Culture
WHATEVER ELSE, the pounds 8.2bn merger between Carlton and United News and Media, announced yesterday, should finally bring down the ramshackle edifice of regulation that covers take-overs in the media.

That regulation is needed, none should doubt. With predators such as Rupert Murdoch prowling around, a free-for-all could only result in poorer standards and higher charges to the consumer. The trouble with the present system of British regulation, however, is that it is still based in the past world of terrestrial television and franchise monopolies. Meanwhile the power of referring mergers and acquisitions to an inquiry remains in the hands of government ministers, who are - as we have seen in the recent cable TV reference - all too subject to political pressure.

This makes no sense in a world of multiple means of TV transmission and almost infinite potential channels and global competition. In the larger world, the fate of a couple of relatively minor media-players with British franchises is hardly cause for a raised eyebrow, never mind a full inquiry. Even United's ownership of The Express, which would once have been the centre of all the regulatory attention, has barely rated more than a footnote in the comment.

The real problem, however, is not the monopoly issue; it is whether the merger of these companies will bring Britain any closer to having the kind of media companies that can compete with the voracious global giants of America, France and Germany. Two middle-sized companies with indifferent profit records, headed by egotistical bosses combining in a mature sector of the market, may make for cost reductions. But they hardly add up to a company that can take on Rupert Murdoch. Still less do they necessarily produce a company that will make better programmes than the indifferent product of their separate entities.

Even if the Department of Trade doesn't intervene to block the merger, the Government should step in, to use this opportunity to look again at the effect of inevitable consolidation not simply on international competitiveness, but also on domestic quality. The rules of market dominance, cross-ownership and press influence all need to be revised. So, too, does the regulation of programming. In the last few years the Independent Television Commission has been week and ineffectual. Now, in considering the changes in franchise ownership involved in this merger, it has a chance to show its teeth.