Politics: Media: Labour drops pricing curbs on papers

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AN ATTACK on national newspaper price wars was deleted from the Government's Competition Bill yesterday.

The so-called Murdoch Amendment, inserted into the Bill by an alliance of Liberal Democrats and rebel Labour peers in the House of Lords last February, was painlessly extracted by the Government, by 17 votes to 2.

During a standing committee examination of the legislation, John Redwood, the Conservative spokesman, advised his Tory colleagues to abstain in a straight fight between the Liberal Democrats, led by David Chidgey, and the committee's predominant force of Labour MPs.

The amendment was tabled by Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat who is a former Labour MP and No 10 aide to James Callaghan, as part of an attempt to curb the alleged predatory pricing of the Times.

The amendment was passed in February with the backing of some prominent Labour rebels, including Lord Hattersley, a former deputy leader of the party, along with three other former Labour cabinet ministers: Baroness Castle, Lord Shore and Lord Barnett.

Opening yesterday's debate, and defending the amendment, Mr Chidgey, MP for Eastleigh, derided any suggestion that price-cutting by the Times was a notional and temporary affair, saying that it had been going on for five years.

Drawing on a briefing paper supplied to him by The Independent, Mr Chidgey argued that there was conflicting legal advice about the Bill as proposed by the Government, without the clause, and the question of predatory pricing needed to be clarified.

"There are serious questions of a potential failure of competition law to deal with predatory pricing," he said.

For the Opposition, Mr Redwood also said that there was a need for clarification, but he rejected the Liberal Democrat approach. "We are very unhappy with the drafting of the Bill," he said.

However, he rejected any question of a targeted approach against the newspaper industry as such, saying instead that the Conservatives would be happy to support a general amendment on a clarification of the law on predatory pricing, along with greater powers for the Office of Fair Trading to pursue complaints.

Mr Redwood said it was the Conservative view that people and organisations were innocent until proved guilty, and the same principle must apply to the Times.

If people wanted to supply new evidence about predatory pricing by the Times, it should be given to the relevant competition authorities.

Ian McCartney, the Trade and Industry Minister, denounced any suggestion that the legislation had been tilted to the advantage of Rupert Murdoch and News International, saying: "This Government is not in the process of giving favours."Any abuse would be dealt with under the terms of the strengthened legislation. "The Government is proposing a very rigorous regime," he said.