Media: Hollick's wide-screen vision: He may be a mogul himself, but Lord Hollick wants proper controls on cross-media ownership. Maggie Brown reports
Wednesday 06 July 1994
He is scathing of the latest Government media botch-up, the relaxation of takeover rules last November, which allowed an operator to control two ITV franchises, regardless of their size. This left the smallest companies wilting on the Celtic fringes as Carlton/Central, Granada/LWT and Meridian/Anglia joined forces, and most newspaper companies, still excluded from the owners' club, spitting with frustration from the sidelines.
The problem for the interviewer is to work out how much of what Lord Hollick says on this democratically vital subject is based on self-interested lobbying directed at the Department of National Heritage committee about to report to ministers on the issues, and how much springs from his distinctive political views. A red-blooded capitalist by deed, he is also a firm supporter of a Blairite Labour Party, and of properly regulated market- places that ensure diversity and do not simply back a few big players by encouraging mergers.
Happiest behind the scenes, his money-broking, fleet-footed company, MAI, has benefited hugely from both the flawed 1990 Broadcasting Act and ensuing franchise tender, adding a significant media division to its operations by winning the old TVS franchise for Meridian. Earlier this year, by taking advantage of the new takeover rules of which he is so critical, MAI paid pounds 292m for Anglia.
Lord Hollick says he wants to expand his media business further. As one of the members of a Channel 5 consortium, he would like to be released from the current 20 per cent limit on a shareholding in this new terrestrial TV venture, and also expand into running cable channels.
The only real setback to his media ambitions in the past two years has been a bitter public falling out over the direction of Mirror Group Newspapers (which owns a stake in Newspaper Publishing, publisher of the Independent and Independent on Sunday). He resigned last year after clashes with David Montgomery, the chief executive he helped to install. The experience, which he declines to share with a wider public, still cuts deep.
He has now become unusually available for interview following a speech last month at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer's Conference. His public plea for commerce with a public service conscience had less impact than he anticipated because on that day the media was elsewhere, convulsed with the implications of the broadsheet newspaper price war between Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, itself a grim example of the lengths to which media moguls are prepared to go to drive up sales and do down rivals.
Lord Hollick points out that as a commercial organisation MAI was bound to take advantage of the freedom to buy up Anglia, another large franchise, even though the change in the rules was 'cack- handed'. And as for being politically motivated: 'I'm saying what I'm saying because I think it has merit.' His main themes are that Britain needs to redefine monopoly to cover all forms of media (see right) and that there should be a powerful single body to regulate all broadcasting, both the business and taste and content aspects. It would also settle the formula for the BBC licence fee.
With the White Paper on the future of the BBC licence fee due today, he holds firm to the radical view - unlikely to be adopted by the Government but viewed more sympathetically by Labour - that a single regulatory body should embrace the corporation.
'I fail to see why broadcasting needs more than one regulator, more than one centre of expertise. It would remove from the BBC the concern and fear it has about going cap in hand to Government.' He described the current system of the Government appointing BBC governors to be its regulators a 'nave notion, a historic arrangement' that can no longer be sustained.
'The Independent Television Commission is already responsible for two terrestrial channels, and cable and satellite. Add the BBC to that and I don't think you would create a monster. I personally don't see the danger of a regulator being over-powerful.
'Governments should establish a general approach then leave the regulator to take a dispassionate independent view without any hint of a political agenda.'
An added advantage of a dispassionate regulator is that it would depersonalise the issue and remove the emotional dimension, which so often in the UK means a fear of Rupert Murdoch.
The idea of a single regulator has been raised in the past by Sir George Russell, chairman of the ITC. But G E Ward Thomas, chairman of Yorkshire/Tyne Tees, was swift to dismiss the notion last week, distancing ITV from the Hollick camp. 'It reminds me of totalitarian regimes; too much power in one set of hands,' he said. 'One knows the sort of people who get appointed by governments to these bodies. Its a horrifying situation. But Clive reckons there will be a Labour government and he'll be head boy.'
But there is more sympathy for Lord Hollick's point that with 10 regulatory agencies and government bodies policing broadcasting, and fighting for turf, some centralisation is essential.
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