Media Viewpoint: A quick fix is no good for ITV

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The Independent Online
Which European country has a powerful culture, a language that is exportable, a wealth of experienced programme-makers and a government that neither allows its broadcasting industry a chance to compete internationally nor regulates sufficiently to deliver quality regional production? Yes, you've got it, Britain.

Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, has shown his contempt for Parliament. His announcement of proposed changes to the ITV takeover regulations sparked off a 'phoney war' in the industry a full two weeks before he had the courtesy to allow Parliament to debate the issue. This is unacceptable in a parliamentary democracy and unfair to shareholders, staff and viewers.

The proposed rule changes are a hasty attempt at a compromise to cover flaws in the 1990 Broadcasting Act highlighted by Opposition members at the time. The farce of the blind franchise auction has been compounded by the fact that a company such as Central, that pays only pounds 2,000 a year for its licence, is now valued for takeover at more than pounds 750m.

Of course, we have all recognised the need for action before the 'moratorium' on ITV takeovers expires on 31 December. Without new legislation we would be in a ludicrous situation, with major ITV companies barred from taking over other large domestic players when nothing would prevent a foreign company from doing the same.

A government more committed to the television industry, more aware of its key strategic importance to the economy, more concerned about the impact upon regional broadcasting and programme-making would have taken its time to produce a more considered view. The decision to allow one large ITV company to take over another, but to restrict ownership to two regional licences, will please neither those who argue for expansion as a protection from foreign takeover, nor those who argue that regional control is the key to maintaining quality regional production.

A corporate time bomb was set ticking by the 1990 Broadcasting Act; clearly something needs to be done to defuse it. It is depressing and predictable that the Government has taken the short-

term, quick fix option over the long-term strategic solution.

Labour has consistently proposed such a solution. We have called for an extension of at least 12 months to the takeover moratorium, allowing time for an extensive review of cross-media ownership in Britain in the context of existing and developing European regulations and of future technological trends. We will vote in favour of this solution tonight.

A comprehensive review is urgently needed as services are developed to be delivered by cable, satellite or BT or Mercury over our telephone lines. UK companies are already losing out, seeing a broadcasting trade surplus of some pounds 24m in 1985 turned into a pounds 100m deficit by 1991.

The situation regarding media ownership is confused and illogical. It is inconsistent to allow one national newspaper group to own and control 100 per cent of non- domestic satellite services, but not to allow others to own more than 20 per cent of a regional ITV company. Our bizarre regulatory system will soon ensure that Britain is the only European country to allow, in principle, foreign companies to take over 100 per cent of its regional broadcasting.

Labour's paramount concerns are, first, that regional television retains its distinct quality, characterised by genuine regional productions and controlled by regional management; second, that quality and standards in independent television production and broadcasting are clearly regulated and rigorously scrutinised by the Independent Television Commission; and third, that home-based production remains at the core of UK broadcasting.

The need for a comprehensive examination of controls on cross-

media ownership has been recognised by the European Commission, which published a Green Paper on Pluralism and Media Concentration in the Internal Market less than a year ago. The industry, the Commission and Labour politicians all recognise that technology is running ahead of legislation. Let's have a vision of television for the Nineties and beyond and not condemn it, as the Government wants, to dwell in the Fifties.

The author is Labour's Heritage spokeswoman.