Murdoch lashes at Mail boss Sir David?

Newspaper chiefs brawl over planned media curbs

RUPERT Murdoch and Sir David English, two of Britain's leading newspaper personalities, became embroiled in an extraordinary row on the day the Government published its latest proposals on media ownership.

"I'm in bomb-throwing mood," thundered Mr Murdoch, whose News International owns the Times, Sunday Times, Sun, News of the World and Today.

He went on to accuse Sir David, chairman of Associated Newspapers, the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London Evening Standard group, of lobbying to have the Government proposals biased in favour of his company.

An angry Mr Murdoch then took his complaints to Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Mr Dorrell reported: "He believes that this is about imposing a new regulatory burden. I told him to his face that I didn't see it that way. He said that he understood the need for control of significant players in the media industry. But he was concerned about constraint on the natural growth of businesses he already owned.

"He had the cheek to accuse us of being uncompetitive," said Sir David, "and said we weren't successful.

"I wasn't having that. It was a heated exchange, but we're old friends and it ended amicably. He was playing the injured lamb and the roaring lion."

Asked why Mr Murdoch launched his tirade against Sir David rather than the Government, Sir David replied: "I think he wanted someone to grumble to and I was probably the nearest person he could get hold of."

Jane Reed, a spokeswoman for Mr Murdoch, said: "He doesn't recall it being heated. In fact, he congratulated Sir David on a great piece of lobbying. But he was pretty angry that morning."

A still sulphurous Mr Murdoch told yesterday's Financial Times that the new limits were "a typical example of British hypocrisy and amount to a 'set-up' between Mr Major and Sir David". He fumed: "If the Government believes in competition, it should abolish the Independent Television Commission. I don't know of any free country in the world that has a regulator of the press. It won't stop us developing our newspapers or Sky Television. But if you have a regulator, who is it to be?"

Industry commentators broadly agree with Mr Murdoch's belief that his company is the biggest loser under the new proposals, which argue that any group with more than a 20 per cent share of the national newspaper market should not control radio and ITV stations. News International's newspapers have 37 per cent of the national market, and the group owns 40 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting Group, the satellite broadcaster. The Associated newspapers are defined as having a 12 per cent share, so the group is free to expand further into radio and television.

Within four hours of the Government's plans being published, News International said: "The Secretary of State's proposals are the proposals of the old vested and often unsuccessful interests - Associated Newspapers, Pearson and Carlton Communications." Pearson owns the Financial T imes while Carlton owns the ITV franchises for the Midlands and London midweek.

Mr Murdoch was not the only tycoon unhappy with the Dorrell plan published on Tuesday.

Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada Group, which owns the north- west and London Weekend TV franchises, said: "From our point of view there was some disappointment that it still cuts off at a maximum of two TV franchises. That does seem illogical if they want consolidation to produce world players."

Initially, Mr Dorrell wants to introduce legislation in the next session of Parliament, to:

q raise the limit on the number of radio licences any company can own from 20 to 35;

q remove the limits on the number of radio licences carrying audiences of 1 million-plus;

q raise from 15 to 25 per cent the limit on share stakes producers and broadcasters can hold in one another.

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