Mirror Group calls Broadcasting Bill `politically biased'

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The Independent Online

Media Editor

Mirror Group yesterday attacked the Government's new Broadcasting Bill, saying it smacked of "political bias and political impropriety".

David Montgomery, chief executive, said his company had been singled out in the new Broadcasting Bill for unfavourable treatment. "Mirror Group is prevented from benefiting from the liberalisation outlined in the bill," he claimed. "The Tory-supporting press expects favours and gets them. We do not look for favours, we look for fairness and we will get it."

He made his comments as the company unveiled higher-than-expected pre- tax profits of pounds 77.1m in 1995. John Allwood, finance director, said the figure was depressed by losses of pounds 10.1m attributable to the launch of L!veTV, the news and entertainment cable channel, last June. Stripping out Mirror Television, core businesses posted profits of pounds 87.2m, up from pounds 84.7m last time.

The results, along with a planned price increase for the Daily Mirror to 30p from Monday, helped to boost the share price to 225p, a gain of 11p.

The new broadcasting legislation, now being debated in the Lords, would allow newspaper and terrestrial television companies to own each other for the first time, subject to a ceiling of 20 per cent of the national newspaper market and 15 per cent of total television audience.

Only Mirror Group, owner of the Mirror titles, the Daily Record, the People and 43 per cent of the Independent, and Rupert Murdoch's News International, publisher of four national titles, are caught by the clause.

Mr Montgomery said Mr Murdoch's extensive pay-TV interests had already given him the cross-promotional advantages of owning both television and newspapers. "The bill gives companies far bigger than Mirror the ability to buy Channel 3 [ITV] companies," Mr Montgomery said.

He hinted that the company could find ways around the restrictions, fuelling speculation that Mirror might make use of "warehousing" schemes used by other media groups to get around legislation.

"There are clearly some ingenious solutions available to us, and we would be negligent if we did not explore them," he said. But he added: "We will always act within the spirit and the letter of the law."

Media analysts said a Labour victory at the next general election could help Mirror Group, which publishes the only Labour-supporting titles in the tabloid market.

Mr Montgomery said there were no current plans to increase the company's 20 per cent stake in Scottish Television. He also said he had not held any specific talks with Carlton Communications about a possible merger, as widely speculated in the market.

Analysts said the company's results were well ahead of expectations, despite sharply higher newsprint costs, which represented 30 per cent of total costs, up from 25 per cent a year earlier.

Separately, the Sun, Mr Murdoch's market-leading tabloid, said it would raise its cover price by 2p to 27p, also from Monday.

Mirror Group's circulation revenues rose 4 per cent to pounds 295.7m in the year.

The company announced a final dividend of 2.8p, for a total of 4p, up 14 per cent.