Tessa Jowell: 'A deal with Murdoch? I've never met him'

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The Independent Online

Tessa Jowell has denied a conspiracy between 10 Downing Street and Rupert Murdoch led to changes in the Communications Bill to allow the media mogul to buy Channel 5.

The decision to sweep away the rule preventing large newspaper groups from the takeover of Channel 5 startled the media industry and led to angry speculation that Tony Blair had done the deal with Mr Murdoch in return for taming the anti-euro views of his UK titles, The Sun and The Times.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport dismissed such allegations. "Anybody who tries to write a story about conspiracy is making it up. There is no conspiracy, there was no conspiracy, there has been no deal. That is the beginning and end of it."

Ms Jowell had come from a roasting on the internet in a web chatroom she had hosted about her draft Bill. One online critic said he would never vote Labour again for allowing Murdoch to buy Channel 5.

"Spaceboydreamer" said The Times had announced it would soften its stance on Europe. "Is it cynical to suppose these events are not unrelated?" A man who described himself as a Channel 5 worker said Mr Murdoch would copy Sky One on Channel 5 showcasing "tits, bums, and people (and animals) behaving badly". Another internet questioner asked when she had last met Mr Murdoch. She retorted: "I have never met nor spoken to Rupert Murdoch. I am not aware of any occasion on which he discussed the communications Bill with Number 10.

Someone calling himself "Islingtonian" said rudely: "True or false – ITV Digital has gone down the pan along with your predictions of a digital switch-over." The answer to that, I discovered, is that she is sticking to her predictions that the switch-over will take place in 2006-10.

Even her Tory shadow, Tim Yeo, sneaked online to have a go. Another online critic accused her of being the Nation's Nanny, telling people what to watch, listen to, eat, drink and smoke.

Relaxing later over a cup of tea in the safety of her private office, she told me: "It may be much less interesting but Patricia Hewitt [Trade Secretary] and I worked on this policy together. We studiously went through the consultation. I had a very large number of meetings and we drew our conclusions from that in a context where we were quite clear that we wanted to deregulate."

Privately, it is admitted that Number 10 was involved, and the Culture Secretary agrees that she had considered a compromise to allow foreign investors to buy Channel 5 only where other countries reciprocated.

That would have left the door barred to Mr Murdoch. An Australian by birth, he is a naturalised American citizen and the US market is not open to foreign take-overs.

If there is any nannying side to Ms Jowell, it is her passion to maintain high public service broadcasting principles in the BBC, and to stop Greg Dyke from dumbing down in pursuit of viewer figures. She defends the right of television soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street to discuss controversial issues, in spite of the criticism by the Broadcasting Standards Commission last week that they featured too much sex, rape and violence before the 9pm watershed.

Soaps have been an "incredibly important vehicle for raising taboo issues", said the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. "It would be a storyline on EastEnders about teenage pregnancy and how to avoid it, about sexually transmitted disease, about smoking – it would be far more powerful and persuasive than anything any minister might say."

As a former health minister who struggled with Britain's appalling record of unwanted teenage pregnancies, she is speaking from experience. "I think where soaps have addressed these issues, they have done society a great service."

Her role with the Bill is more that of a midwife than a nanny. It is an agonisingly slow process. The Bill will be included in the Queen's Speech in November and should be law by mid-2003. It will bring in Ofcom, the new standards watchdog. She was criticised for preserving the role of the BBC governors as the watchdog for the BBC, but a little noticed clause in the Bill could change that in the long term. It allows Ofcom to carry out a review of all broadcasting, including the BBC, within a year of its establishment. "They will start the review the moment they get their knees under the table," said a source.

Further reviews are required every three years. It is likely that the interlude will be reduced during the passage of the Bill. She is formidably well briefed on the detail but will face a tougher test on Tuesday when she faces a kicking from Gerald Kaufman and his select committee on culture, media and sports for allowing a further delay to the Football Association for the Wembley project. Then she will need her shin pads.

1947: Born 17 September in London. Studied at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities and Goldsmith's College.

Biography

1969: Worked as a child care officer in Lambeth.

1972: Psychiatric social worker at London's Maudsley Hospital.

1974: Assistant director of mental health charity Mind

1978: Contested Ilford North by-election and in the 1979 general election.

1986: Became director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Community Care Programme.

1992: MP for Dulwich and West Norwood.

1997: Minister of State, Department of Health.

1999: Secretary of State, Culture Media and Sport

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