POLEMIC Save Channel 5 from Murdoch!

Michael Grade pleads for rapid action on media ownership
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The Independent Online
This week I had a nightmare. I dreamt that the Government had decided on a radical new approach to regulating the media. I dreamt it had decided to introduce a Bill into parliament giving Rupert Murdoch the right to own as much of the British media as he wants.

I woke up with a start to realise that the nightmare was fast becoming a reality.

Next Tuesday is the closing date for applications for the new Channel 5. A consortium backed by Murdoch stands a very good chance of winning. If it does, it will mark the final chapter of a sorry tale of government weakness, incompetence and opportunism in broadcasting policy. It will permanently remove all hope of fair and effective media ownership rules in the UK.

A Murdoch foothold in British terrestrial television will have enormous and damaging consequences. First, Rupert Murdoch has no history of passive investment. However small his apparent shareholding, he plays to win, he seeks to control.

Second, it will greatly accelerate Murdoch's domination of British commercial television. Having already been allowed exceptional privileges to escape ownership regulations, to use extensive cross-media cross-promotion and to deploy a monopoly in subscription technology, his position will be greatly consolidated. The buying power against competitors will be awesome. Astra satellites will be used to extend the Channel 5 signal beyond the terrestrial limit of 70 per cent of the population. His newspapers will promote it aggressively and relentlessly.

And if Granada is a partner, there will always be the threat hanging over ITV that at some stage - who knows when - Coronation Street and its audiences could be moved across to Channel 5. The BBC can then forget the crumbs it has been picking up from Sky, from Match of the Day to the back end of American film deals. With his own competing terrestrial network Murdoch will have no further need for the BBC, which will be staring at its last Wimbledon tennis contract.

Third, it will make a nonsense of any future efforts to construct a viable media ownership framework. It will delay, probably for ever, the achievement of real and meaningful diversity of ownership in Britain.

Fourth, it will do nothing for viewer choice. More films, more sport, more Sky News are scarcely the ingredients of innovation.

Fifth, it will do nothing for British television production. Sky has been commercially very successful in cherry-picking existing programmes and rights. But it has done virtually nothing by way of reinvestment in British production. It takes no creative risks; it makes little new; it simply recycles - and recycles as cheaply as possible.

There are those, I know, who put their faith in the Independent Television Commission reaching the "right" result and finding some way to disqualify Murdoch. But, as Rupert Murdoch and his lawyers will doubtless argue, the rules are the rules: if they pass the easy test of the application requirements, if they bid as high as they doubtless can, then the ITC is powerless to deny them the prize.

If the Government is to salvage any credible policy on cross-media ownership it has two practical options. Parliament could pass an urgent one-line Bill giving the ITC wider discretion in its coming deliberations to ignore the highest bid in awarding the Channel 5 licence. Or it could instruct the ITC to wait until new ownership rules are in place.

Judging by press reports this week, MPs of all parties are beginning to stir uncomfortably at the prospect of further territorial media advances by Rupert Murdoch. There is time to act. The politicians cannot say they have not been warned.

The writer is chief executive of Channel 4. This is an edited version of a speech he gave last night at a reception held by the `British Journalism Review'.

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