Will Parliament resist Rupert's grip?

If the digital TV regulations are passed, Murdoch's monstrous coup will be complete. Do our MPs have the mettle to stop him?
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The Independent Online
New readers start here. In a few days the Department of Trade and Industry will finally publish a set of regulations for controlling digital television and Murdoch's potential monopoly of it. Digital television is the wave of the future. It offers wide-screen and multi-channel interactive television, where you can bank, book tickets and summon up any film or archive programme via your TV and a phone line.

BSkyB is now ordering digital boxes from manufacturers that will be exclusively for its own use. These boxes will not have a switch to allow other systems to attach themselves. Nor will the slots in these boxes be made compatible to take decoder cards for other systems. That means any broadcaster wanting to go digital will have to use Murdoch's gateway, on his terms, at his price, to be regulated by Oftel, which has no broadcasting experience.

The BBC, ITV and others are lobbying for Murdoch to be forced to franchise out his technology to anyone who wants it at a fair price so that anyone can manufacture universal boxes. This is now the key issue. Unless action is taken, all broadcasters will have to use Murdoch's gateway.

The government line is: they are doing everything humanly possible to ensure that Murdoch does not have a monopoly. Briefings from the DTI seem to have been seductive, full of difficult jargon and disingenuous protests of utter incomprehension at what all this fuss is about. Trust them. Alarmingly, politicians on both sides seem to be doing just that.

The DTI has two lines of argument - one is that regulations already in place does most of what is necessary. The second is to hide behind a European directive, claiming that tougher regulation would not be legal. Both claims are substantially untrue. The French are introducing very tough regulation of every aspect of the gateways. We could too. The Government's silent obedience to an extreme interpretation of a European directive squares oddly with the anti-European protests it stirs up on other issues.

The regulations about to be published say only that Murdoch may be forced to franchise out his technology to broadcasters at some point in the future (too late), if all else fails. There is time to change that, just, and make it compulsory at once.

Now we shall test the resolve of politicians to do the right thing. MPs can oppose the regulations and refuse to endorse such a monstrous monopoly. However, since the House of Commons boasts barely an MP with an engineering degree, DTI jelly is easily spoon-fed to them. The passage of the Broadcasting Act 1996, which fudged this issue, can be read as a case study in the power of Murdoch to intimidate politicians.

The Labour Party protests its innocence. What could they have done, with no majority in the House? Lewis Moonie, Labour's spokesman on broadcasting, and Jeff Hoon, Labour's DTI spokesman, wrote an indignant letter to The Independent on Saturday, denying any suggestion that Labour acquiesced in allowing Murdoch his monopoly. They say they always argued for his system to be forced to be compatible with others and if the forthcoming regulations fall short of this they will fight it in the House. Good.

But at the committee stage of the Broadcasting Bill something odd happened. Tory MP Roger Gale put forward a crucial amendment to guarantee open access to all broadcasters and a common interface in every box. Gale had the support of one other maverick Tory in the committee, David Shaw. But when the amendment came to a vote, they were appalled to find that two Labour members of the committee were mysteriously missing. It was tied 11-11, when it should have been 11-13 for, and thus it fell. So a guarantee of fair access to the digital future was lost.

A serious cock-up by Labour? Who knows? Once an amendment is defeated in committee, it cannot be put again on the floor of the House. Had it passed, observers believe that the Government would not have tried to overturn it in the House.

What does Moonie say about the crucial vote? Various different things: "The amendment was over-prescriptive, a matter better left to secondary legislation (the regulations)." He also says: "We were not particularly bothered as we thought we had a better deal on the regulations." Touching faith by a Labour MP in a DTI led by deregulators and apostles of big business. Why did Labour not ensure that everyone was there for a vote it was supporting? "Maybe we got caught short. It does happen. I can see how it might have looked. I never thought we were going to win that amendment." Even though it was moved by a Tory?

Interviewed in this paper last week, Lewis Moonie said he was satisfied with government "cast-iron assurances" on the DTI's forthcoming regulations. He added: "This idea that Murdoch is going to flood the market with cheap trash is a condescending middle-class idea - the idea that you've got to protect people from this stuff."

This remark falls so far short of understanding what all this is about that it is, frankly, frightening. No one wants to stop Murdoch putting out any channels he chooses, trash or not. This battle is about stopping Murdoch from preventing others broadcasting on equal terms.

Odd innuendos of blame are seeping out of the Tory side. After all, whether Labour did or did not fumble this, the pro-Murdoch government is primarily to blame. But now Downing Street is whispering wickedly that it was Michael Heseltine when he was President of the Board of Trade at DTI who at the crucial moment sold the pass to Murdoch to further his own imperial ambitions, hoping for the support of the Murdoch press.

However, parliamentary sins - of omission and commission - are history. There is still time for all those MPs who care about a free future to reclaim their honour. Both parties need to be kept under the closest scrutiny when these regulations are published. Murdoch must be forced to franchise the set-top technology immediately. Any MP who does not vote accordingly (or conveniently fails to turn up to vote) has to be counted a lackey and a traitor to the cause of free television competition.

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