MPs challenge rules on media

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The Government was last night facing a defeat on its rules for cross- media ownership in the Broadcasting Bill after two Tory MPs tabled an amendment with Labour's support.

The two Tory MPs, John Whittingdale and Peter Atkinson, are ministerial aides, and their move could threaten their jobs as Parliamentary Private Secretaries to Eric Forth, the education minister, and Jeremy Hanley, the foreign office minister. Tory sources said the MPs were irritated by the extent to which the approach to competition in the media adopted by Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary, was being outflanked by Labour.

Their amendment would wreck Mrs Bottomley's proposal in the Bill to stop investment in commercial television by companies with more than 20 per cent of the newspaper market. Their amendment would remove the limit and leave it to the ITC to decide whether a takeover bid was in the public interest.

Lewis Moonie, the national heritage spokesman, said Labour would be supporting the amendment, and two Labour MPs had put their names to it to stop it being withdrawn under pressure from Tory whips.

Labour has proposed lifting the limit to 25 per cent, in order to allow the Mirror Group - major shareholders in the Independent - to expand its cross-media ownership. Mr Moonie said the other checks in the Bill on public interest were sufficient for Labour to support the move to remove the limit completely.

There are three other checks on cross-media ownership: companies cannot have more than 15 per cent of the television audience; the ITC has the power to decide whether it is in the public interest; and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission can block a takeover.

Mr Moonie said the 20 per cent limit proposed by Mrs Bottomley was a crude attempt to stop the Mirror Group owning a wider stake in television. It would also prohibit the Murdoch empire from more cross-media ownership, but Labour believes it is not interested in a greater stake in terrestrial TV.