MPs bid to scrap limits on control of media

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Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, is striving to face down a Commons attempt to raise or scrap the threshold preventing media groups with more than 20 per cent of the newspaper market from controlling terrestrial television stations.

Whitehall sources said Mrs Bottomley was determined to maintain the threshold in spite of the opposition of an alliance between Labour MPs and free- market Tories who are threatening to defeat the cross-media ownership clause of her Broadcasting Bill in committee tomorrow. "She intends to win and believes she will do so," one source said.

Two MPs on the right wing of the Tory party John Whittingdale and Peter Atkinson, have tabled an amendment seeking to scrap the threshold, leaving it up to the Independent Television Commission to decide whether any bid above the 20-per-cent threshold is in the public interest.

Labour propose lifting it to 25 per cent. This would allow Mirror Group Newspapers into the non-cable, non satellite television market. But Labour have also submitted an amendment to lift the threshold altogether, which would allow Rupert Murdoch's News international to enter the terrestrial television market if he could show it was in the public interest to do so.

The two Tories will risk their posts as parliamentary private secretaries if they persist with the amendment, although Labour sources were optimistic the minority parties would support them. Robert MacLennan, the Liberal Democrat MP in the standing Committee, refused yesterday to disclose how he would vote.

One area of compromise could be an offer by Mrs Bottomley to lengthen the time a company would have to divest itself of a stake in television if it had passed the 20-per-cent mark. But she was said to be determined not to make more substantial concessions before the standing committee vote.

Labour is determined that the Mirror Group, part owners of the Independent, should be given the same access as rival newspaper companies to the terrestrial television market.