Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has told the European Commission that much of the output of Mr Murdoch's Sky TV channels do not meet Brussels directives on the quality of television output and could risk losing their licences.
Under a 1989 directive, "Television without Frontiers", European Union states are required to ensure "where practicable and by appropriate means, that broadcasters reserve a majority of their broadcasting time for European works."
At least one-tenth of output is also supposed to come from independent European producers, and an adequate proportion should be recent - "transmitted within five years of their production" - in an effort to stamp out excessive repeats of golden oldies.
Government analysis of the UK output from 80 television channels shows that more than two-thirds of BBC output for 1995 and 1996 was European, while about one-fifth came from independent European producers, with a similar proportion of recent independent work.
By comparison, Sky One, the basic Murdoch satellite channel, delivered a European output of only 33 per cent in 1995, with 38 per cent in 1996. Its independent productions and recent independent productions hit the 10 per cent target in 1995, but then fell back to 4 per cent in 1996.
In 1996, none of the Sky Channels reached the majority European output demanded by the directive. By the end of last year, Sky One (45 per cent), Sky Travel (34 per cent), Sky Movies 1 (23 per cent) and Sky Movies Gold (20 per cent) were still way below the Brussels benchmark.
In a letter to MPs, Mr Smith said: "From now on, broadcasters' quarter- yearly data returns will be examined cumulatively."
He then added the threat: "If a broadcaster fails to come up with a convincing explanation of its inability to meet fully quota requirements, the Government would be prepared to use the powers under Section 188 of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which provides a statutory mechanism to enforce the requirements through the regulatory system." The big-stick mechanism was not detailed.
However, the European Commission has been told by Mr Smith's department: "Where quotas have not been met and no reasonable justification has been given, the authorities may use Section 188 of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which provides for a range of penalties right up to withdrawal of the licence."
Tom Sutcliffe, page 15Reuse content