ITC's Channel 5 decision next week

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The Independent Online

The Independent Television Commission is to decide next week whether to carry out an inquiry into identical bids offered for the Channel 5 licence by two competing consortia.

The decision will be taken during the ITC's regular monthly meeting, scheduled for the week starting 15 May.

A group led by Virgin and another consortium made up of Pearson, the Financial Times' owner; MAI, the financial services and broadcasting group, and European broadcaster both bid £22,002,000 for the 10-year licence, coming in second behind UKTV, a partnership led by CanWest and SelecTV, which bid more than £36m.

A fourth alliance, led by Rupert Murdock's BSkyB and Granada, the independent television company, bid £2m.

"If the ITC feel it is necessary, we would certainly welcome an investigation," Robert Devereaux, chairman of Virgin Communications who headed the Virgin TV bid, said. "It would put an end to all the speculation." A spokesman for Channel 5 Broadcasting, the Pearson-led consortium, said "we would certainly provide all possible help" in the event of an inquiry.

Both groups deny there was any collusion in the preparation of bids. Results of the blind auction have caused confusion in the bidding camps and at the ITC. If, as some analysts have suggested, the CanWest bid is rejected on financial or programme quality grounds, the ITC would ask the dead-heat bidders to re-bid.

The ITC has yet to confirm whether the re-bidding would start at a minimum £22,002,000 or again from zero. "The need for an inquiry at all highlights the inadequacies of a process in which the highest bid wins," Chris Smith, Labour's parliamentary spokesman said.