Draft Bill postpones media regulation until 2003

The Queen's Speech: Media controls
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The announcement of a draft Bill on the communications industry represents a postponement of long-awaited changes to media regulation.

The announcement of a draft Bill on the communications industry represents a postponement of long-awaited changes to media regulation.

The draft communications Bill will in effect be a big consultation document that the media industry will mull over for three months. It will feature again in the Queen's Speech next year, and become law in 2003. The Government claims that is in line with a manifesto commitment to have a new regulatory body, Ofcom, operational by 2003.

But the move to set up Ofcom ­ to police the commercial companies but not the BBC, which will stay under the control of its board of governors ­ will go ahead with a special Bill bringing it into existence. It will not, though, be doing any regulating until the end of 2003.

The delay has disappointed the two big ITV companies, Granada and Carlton, which have been forced to put their £10bn merger on hold. It also stops leading independent radio companies from rationalising.

But, with four new ministers at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and the Government not eager to grapple with the thorny issue of media ownership, stalling comes as no great surprise. The larger draft Bill, when published, will force a debate on rules for the ownership of newspapers, television stations and radio networks.

Under current rules, a national newspaper owner cannot own more than 20 per cent of a terrestrial television company. There has been speculation that the Government is pussyfooting so as not to come into conflict with Rupert Murdoch. But this was firmly denied by the DCMS yesterday.

A spokesman said: "This is about reforming the regime as a whole for the benefit of society as a whole. Personalising it is ridiculous."

Ralph Bernard, the chief executive of GWR, a leading commercial radio company, gave a guarded welcome to the Queen's Speech, saying: "The reference to the Bill came fairly late in the speech, which implies we've slipped down the legislative timetable. However, that will allow a little more time to get the draft absolutely right, to achieve the objectives Her Majesty mentioned ­ encouraging enterprise, strengthening competition laws and safeguarding consumers."

The five communications regulators that will form Ofcom welcomed the announcement in the Queen's Speech that a full draft of the Communications Bill will be published in the current parliamentary session.

The chief executives of the five regulators ­ Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, the Radiocommunications Agency, the Radio Authority and Oftel ­ have appointed Towers Perrin, one of the world's biggest management consulting firms, to map the process for setting up the new regulator.