MPs demand action to stop Murdoch taking over ITV

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Indy Politics

More than 60 MPs have backed a campaign to force the Government and regulators to step in to prevent BSkyB, Britain's biggest satellite television company, from taking over its terrestrial rival ITV.

The prospect that BSkyB's chairman, Rupert Murdoch, could, in effect, gain control over ITV - including its news channel - has created a political dilemma for the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, as he gets ready to take over 10 Downing Street.

A Commons motion, put forward by the Labour MP John Grogan, has called on the Government to use its special powers under the 2002 Enterprise Act to prevent BSkyB from controlling ITV. He wants the matter referred to the Competition Commission.

BSkyB controls 40 per cent of all television revenue, almost twice that of the BBC, and MPs have warned it has become "a potential threat to competition". Among the 62 signatories to the motion are are 37 Labour MPs, including the former paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, who owns the New Statesman magazine and is a leading ally of Mr Brown. They are backed by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

Mr Grogan admitted that if the Chancellor followed his advice, he would run the risk that Mr Murdoch will retaliate by ordering The Sun to back the Conservatives at the next election.

He said: "I understand why leaders of the Labour Party are always going to be concerned about the opinions of leading newspapers but I don't think newspapers like The Sun have the dominance they had 15 years ago. It's important for Gordon Brown, as part of his new appeal, to appear slightly austere. He is going to want to distinguish himself from Mr Blair's approach in a number of ways. I hope this is going to be one of those ways."

The Treasury has insisted that Mr Brown is keeping his hands off any decision about ITV's future, which he has left to the Trade Secretary, Alistair Darling, his main ally in the Cabinet.

Mr Darling was expected to make an announcement last month, but has delayed it at least until MPs return from their break on 19 February.

Civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry have described the issue as a "legal minefield". If the Government intervened, it would be the first case of its kind in the media industry. Privately, Mr Darling has said he anticipates a storm of criticism whether he decides to act or not.

The delay means it will have taken the Government at least five weeks to react to an official warning from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that Britain's two main privately owned television companies were on the point of merging.

The OFT issued a statement on 12 January that "it may be the case that a relevant merger situation has been created", after BSkyB bought a 17.9 per cent shareholding in ITV. The acquisition thwarted a bid for ITV by NTL Telewest, whose main shareholder is Sir Richard Branson's Virgin group.

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