Lords decline to bar Murdoch from bidding for Channel 5

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The Independent Online

An attempt to block the media baron Rupert Murdoch from buying Channel Five was narrowly defeated in the House of Lords yesterday.

An amendment to the Communications Bill, put down by Tom McNally, the Liberal Democrat peer, gained support from all parties but failed to defeat the Government by 30 votes.

The amendment, deliberately targeted at the American press baron, would have prevented a national newspaper group which has a market share of 20 per cent or more buying the TV channel.

Rupert Murdoch, who owns The Times, The Sun and the Sunday Times, has a share of about 37 per cent of the national newspaper market.

The Liberal Democrat amendment, which would have stopped him gaining a Channel Five licence, gained the backing of 137 peers compared with Labour's 167.

Lord McNally said yesterday the amendment was "Parliament's chance to signal to Murdoch that he would be challenged". He added: "The pattern of Mr Murdoch's behaviour in New York and Australia suggests that he could come calling here."

The move to put additional barriers ahead of Mr Murdoch's ambitions comes despite a Government compromise which would impose a public interest "plurality test" for media takeovers.

The Government has already spelled out plans to allow the Trade and Industry Secretary to intervene if there are public interest grounds for stopping a media acquisition. The government concession follows protests led by Lord Puttnam, the Labour peer and film producer.

Lord Lipsey, the leading Labour peer, attacked Rupert Murdoch and said Channel 5 may get into such a dire position that rules may need to be bent to save it.

"Well that we know, that's how he [Murdoch] got The Times, that's how he got his satellite television monopoly. I do not think it is such a wonderful thing that a Labour Government at third reading of a Bill, should be bringing forward concessions on plurality," he said.

"I would have expected a Labour Government to have had such a test as the flagship of this Bill. And as to my attack on Mr Murdoch, the rubicon was crossed when Tony Blair travelled half way round the world to address a News International Conference. In the Thirties we used to be afraid that the Fascists would take over the Government and then control the press. In the twenty first century we could well be in danger of the Fascists taking control of the press and then controlling the Government."