Mergers 'threaten small TV firms': Labour seeks longer takeover moratorium

(First Edition)

MINISTERS have been warned that smaller commercial television companies, including Grampian, HTV and Anglia, could disappear in mergers with bigger companies if the moratorium on takeovers is ended this year.

The Opposition has offered to support a short government Bill to extend the moratorium until the end of 1996, to coincide with the BBC review.

Ann Clwyd, the Labour spokeswoman on national heritage, made the offer to Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Ms Clwyd, who has attacked the merger of Tyne Tees television with Yorkshire and alleged falling standards at Granada, said the Independent Television Commission, the industry's watchdog, was 'orthodontically challenged and lacked bite', in this week's Tribune, a newspaper of Labour's left.

'If the moratorium is not extended, regional broadcasting will be dealt its death blow. The smaller companies overbid - in some cases massively - to safeguard their franchises. Predators are already lining up with cheque books and jaws wide open. That could see the end of Anglia, HTV, and Grampian,' Ms Clwyd said.

The Government is believed to be split on the next move. Mr Brooke circulated a minute seeking Parliamentary time for a short Bill to change the Broadcasting Act to allow some mergers after the moratorium ends. But Ian Laing, Secretary of State for Scotland, is said to be opposing any change to Scottish commercial television.

Meanwhile, ministers are considering requiring viewers to pay for the TV licence when they buy their sets to overcome an estimated pounds 200m loss in annual revenue for the BBC through evasion. Shopkeepers are reluctant to act as the Government's agents for collecting the money, but ministers believe it would cut down evasion.

A consultants' report to the Department of National Heritage included a reduction in the licence fee among the options for the next three years, until the renewal of the BBC charter in 1997. But ministers are expected to allow it to be pegged to the rate of inflation, which would still impose severe restraint on BBC budgets.