United News cool on Scottish Media bid

LORD HOLLICK, the chief executive of United News & Media, yesterday played down suggestions that the television and newspaper group was considering a bid for Scottish Media Group.

Lord Hollick stressed that buying SMG was "not a priority" for United as the group attempts to achieve its newly adopted target of posting double- digit annual revenue growth over the next three years.

Analysts believe United is one of the obvious candidates to buy the 18.5 per cent stake in SMG which Mirror Group, the newspaper publisher, put up for sale on Thursday.

Carlton and Granada, the rival ITV companies, are also expected to consider buying the stake, as is CanWest, the Canadian media group. Carlton and United would then be in a position to use the stake as a launch pad for a full bid for SMG.

However, United is more keen to use its financial firepower to make acquisitions that will give it market leadership in fast-growing markets. The group recently bought Newsdesk, an Internet news service, and Audits & Surveys, a US market research company. United is currently the third-largest ITV company, but buying SMG would not change its ranking.

Lord Hollick said that the company, which has borrowings of pounds 600m, could comfortably afford to spend a further pounds 500m on acquisitions.

He was speaking as United reported a slight increase in underlying pre- tax profits of pounds 290m for the year to last December. Revenues jumped 10 per cent to pounds 2.0bn.

The results were adjusted for the demerger of Garban, United's moneybroking division, which it spun off last year, and the sale of its regional newspaper division.

Profit growth was held back by start-up losses incurred by United's investments in Channel 5, the LineOne internet service, and SDN, its digital broadcasting venture. Results were also affected by investment in the Express newspaper titles.

The figures came as little surprise, as United had already given the City an indication of its profits after mistakenly sending its earnings figures to analysts a few weeks ago. United shares closed up 22p at 653p.