View from City Road: Labour stays with the same programme

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The Independent Online
Nature abhors a vacuum, which is presumably why Rupert Murdoch has chosen this moment to begin sweet-talking the Opposition. Labour's recent policy discussion paper on the media leaves enough room for even News Corporation's capacious juggernaut to continue on its merry way without hindrance.

Long on futuristic jargon, short on concrete proposals, it is hard to identify what, if anything, Labour would do if it came to power to reform the way in which the sector is regulated.

All News Corp's celebratedly opportunistic chairman needs do at this point is to ensure that, in the event of a Labour victory at the next election, the company is not singled out as Enemy Number One and subjected to legislation specifically designed to hamper its activities.

The paper is, of course, fulsome on Labour's commitment to further the creation of an interactive multimedia information superhighway. But there is not much on the likely regulatory approach of any future Labour government. The only clues lie in appreciative references to two models, neither of them that different from the system in operation.

Labour, it seems, would attempt to limit 'vertical and geographical' integration so that people living in, say, Birmingham should not have their local radio and television stations and regional cable services controlled by one company. This is not that unlike the present approach which aims, for instance, to prevent local newspapers owning local radio stations.

Labour also apparently likes the near-Stalinist points system that operates in the commercial radio sector. Even the Radio Authority has its doubts about the practicalities of a system so diabolically complex that it does not bear explaining - and it is, in any case, a breeding ground for clever lawyers to find loopholes.

On the big issues, which are all relatively clear-cut, there's hardly anything. Should newspaper/radio/ television ownership be subject to restrictions above and beyond the normal competition rules? Should the virtual bar on cross-media ownership be lifted? And how should the market for advertising be defined to decide whether any company is dominant?

In the event, Labour may never have to address the issue directly. The Government, in its current cross-media review, initially favoured removing all specific restrictions, and allowing the area to be dealt with by normal competition rules. But recently it has lost its nerve, partly because of fears that to do so would open the door for Mr Murdoch to get into terrestrial broadcasting too. Nevertheless, the chances are that it will significantly liberalise the sector well before the next election. Labour will be left to shut the stable door.

Ironically, News Corporation's success has been bred in the rarefied air of a highly regulated sector. Its skill has been in keeping one step ahead of the regulators and thus the competitors. The thrust of regulation at present is towards keeping newspaper, radio and television interests as separate as possible.

Given that Labour appears to favour accentuating the current situation, which has the effect of keeping many potentially strong competitors out of the market, it is small wonder Mr Murdoch is considering offering it his support.

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