Leading Article: The dawn of a New Media Age

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BRITAIN is well placed to become a major player in the so- called New Media Age. In this dawning era, huge media conglomerates are expected to flood the world with hundreds of satellite and cable television channels and a daunting variety of video and CD- related communications media.

First, this country shares with the biggest player of all, the United States, the dominant international language. Second, it is rich in creative people whose skills in television and radio programme-making are widely respected. Third, its own culture has become a successful export, notably in the field of popular music. These assets are underpinned by an unrivalled range of national newspapers.

Yet Britain's domestic media market presents an unhealthily lop- sided impression. It is dominated by Rupert Murdoch, who owns five national newspapers and 50 per cent of the BSkyB satellite television company. Against him are ranged assorted newspaper groups allowed to hold only 20 per cent of any commercial television or radio station; the BBC, too small to feature in the top 20 world media companies; and 16 tightly regulated, licence-holding independent television companies. These have only just been allowed to merge and are not allowed to own national newspapers.

In announcing on Monday a broad review of cross-media ownership, the Government signalled its willingness to allow the creation of larger British groups capable of competing with giant European and American corporations that straddle the fields of newspapers, book publishing, television and telecommunications. Ministers have no doubt also listened to arguments from Mr Murdoch's competitors. The latter can reasonably claim that whereas Mr Murdoch, a major newspaper proprietor, exploited a legislative loophole to start up this country's first satellite television station, they have been handicapped by regulations applying to terrestrial stations.

In conducting his review, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, will have to balance his desire to boost the competitiveness of British companies with the need to protect British consumers by maintaining diversity of opinion and choice. Consumers should benefit if such newspaper-owning groups as Associated Newspapers and Pearson were better able to do battle with Mr Murdoch on his own terms. Yet they could become net losers if those groups in turn used their increased power to reduce overall competition. Mr Brooke should take his time in getting the new regulatory framework absolutely right. It is too important to be rushed.