The smile of the tiger

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The Independent Online
Did a warm, wide, Antipodean grin steal across the face of Rupert Murdoch yesterday? He was entitled to one. Strong rumours were emanating from the Department of National Heritage that the long-heralded review of the regulations on "cross-media ownership", which many thought might threaten his position in Britain, will amount to very little indeed.

This contrasts strongly with the political mood-music of 18 months ago. Then Conservative minds were preoccupied with two related questions. The first was how to forge shackles for the Murdoch monster that they had helped to create. With about 35 per cent of the national newspaper market and a television operation that will - by the end of the decade - overtake ITV, News International was becoming an over-powerful and increasingly hostile offspring. Shades of Silvio Berlusconi flitted across the night vision of Messrs Major and Heseltine.

The second, related question was what new dispensation would be best for a fast-developing industry, whose dimensions bear little resemblance to that envisaged in earlier broadcasting legislation - and whose economic potential is as unexploited as its cultural importance is self-evident.

The answer to both these questions was the same, according to a number of British press barons. Murdoch's rise was in part attributable to two coups that blasted gaping holes in British media law. First, by taking over newspaper titles supposedly at death's door, he avoided Monopolies and Mergers Commission attention. Then he launched Sky TV as a semi-pirate operation, before merging it into his only serious competitor, BSB.

So, say Murdoch's competitors, either cut him down to size with new restrictions on the slice of the media pie any individual is allowed to hog, or establish rules that allow other newspaper companies to give chase in the TV business. Preferably, some think, do both. Surely, no Conservative government could resist the urge to increase competition. Let a half-a-dozen or so flowers bloom.

Despite the bold harrumphing of last year, it now seems that any such horticultural ambitions are wilting. Murdoch as kingmaker (or un-maker) stands icily in the pre-election wings. When the policy statement finally emerges it is now expected to allow only a small increase in the access for newspaper publishers to commercial terrestrial television and radio. It may also outline "options" for the longer term. There will, apparently, be no legislation in this parliament.

In other words, for the third time since Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power, a spasm of tinkering will take the place of strategy. Only on Wednesday we had yet another example of this, when it emerged that the Office of Fair Trading was prepared to accept undertakings from BSkyB that it would not take unfair advantage of its ownership of the decoder "gateway" to deter competitor satellite channels. If history is any guide, such assurances are virtually worthless.

This means that Mr Murdoch will remain unchecked and the genuinely domestic British media companies disadvantaged. Addressing this problem is not simple, but nor is it impossible. It requires a government with the clarity to think ahead about the communications sector and how it should be regulated in the public interest. Then it requires a prime minister with the courage to look Mr Murdoch in the eye and tell him what the new rules are.

Unless this week's reports are quickly disavowed, we shall be sure we do not have such a prime minister. Nor can we yet tell whether we have such a prime minister in prospect.