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Cross-media rules remain arbitrary

Cross-media rules remain arbitrary

Stephen Dorrell, the National Heritage Secretary, appears to be replacing one arbitrary system with another with his long-awaited package on cross- media ownership. By deciding to limit the television aspirations of dominant national newspaper publishers, Mr Dorrell has managed to cut out just two players - Rupert Murdoch, though his present privileged position remains untouched and Mirror Group, which appears to have been caught in the crossfire.

At the same time, his decision to maintain the limit of two ITV licences per player has stymied the expansionist hopes of a clutch of other media companies, including Granada, which had hoped to buy Yorkshire Tyne Tees and MAI, also covetous of YTT. MAI paid well over the odds for its 14.8 per cent stake in YTT just last week, betting it would win the right to buy the lot.

It is far from clear what Mr Dorrell is trying to achieve with these interim proposals. Yes, there will be scope for television companies to buy newspaper groups. But with the exception of the Express papers, are any national newspapers for sale? And if they are, does anybody really want to buy them in this difficult market? No doubt by chance rather than design the two groups most adversely affected are the Mirror Group, publisher of the Labour-leaning Mirror, and MAI, chaired by Labour peer Lord Hollick. Conspiracy theorists will believe otherwise.

The Government's proposals for the longer term have more merit. The Green Paper promises to limit any one player to 10 per cent of the national market and 20 per cent of regional markets. The chances of this being enacted before the next election look pretty remote, however.