LEADING ARTICLE : Who's afraid of Rupert Murdoch?

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A queasy feeling is disturbing the tender innards of politicians and broadcasters. The awful truth is beginning to dawn that next week, when the envelopes containing the applications to run Channel 5 are opened at the headquarters of the Independent Television Commission, Rupert Murdoch's consortium may be the highest bidder.

Their reasons for wanting to avoid the franchise from hell incorporate lavish quantities of self-interest, but were well put yesterday in a speech by Channel 4's chief executive, Michael Grade. Mr Grade was apocalyptic. If Murdoch wins, he said, then "it will permanently remove all hope of fair and effective media ownership rules in the UK. The game will be over". Unfortunately, the facts bear out Mr Grade's concerns. By stealth on Mr Murdoch's part, and a mixture of neglect and connivance on that of governments, News International and its various arms have built up a position of strength that was never intended and has never been agreed by Parliament.

First he was allowed to take over a large slice of the newspaper industry by holding a gun to the industry's head and shouting: "Throw away your restrictions or the titles get it." Next he exploited loopholes in the legislation on satellite broadcasting, initially to outgun Sky's only competitor, BSB, and then to absorb it. Now, as the Government dithers about new rules to govern cross-media ownership in this country, the predatory Australo-American stands to get his large toe into terrestrial television.

Does it really matter? Yes, it does. The communications industry is shaping up to be one of the most lucrative - and certainly the most influential - industries in the country. Who controls newspapers, books, television, radio, multimedia products, film and video matters to everybody. Unfair competition or monopoly provision threatens consumer choice, long-term quality and - ultimately - aspects of our culture and democracy. Do we want Rupert Murdoch to be the most powerful man in Britain?

Mr Grade offers two solutions. The first, not very good one, is that Parliament should change the rules at the last minute and allow the ITC wider discretion in the awarding of the Channel 5 licence. That way, Murdoch can lose out on some nebulous excuse or other such as quality or shoe size. This is the sort of arbitrary approach which created the Murdoch mess in the first place.

More intelligently he suggests that the awarding of the Channel 5 licence be put on ice until proper new cross-media ownership rules are in place. These rules would then guide the decision about who could win and in what circumstances.

Stephen Dorrell, the Heritage Secretary, is months overdue in producing these rules; he should now take Mr Grade's advice. It is also time that we heard something clear and strong-minded on this subject from Mr Dorrell's Labour shadow, Chris Smith. Otherwise we may draw the conclusion that both the big political parties are simply afraid of Mr Murdoch.

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