Wednesday 30 April 2003

The threat to our TV from this corrupter of politicians

The Lords must stop Murdoch from seizing another slab of the media

by Polly Toynbee

Now is the time for the Lords to earn its ermine. There are few occasions when its lack of democratic legitimacy is an advantage - but the communications bill is one. Over the next weeks, the Lords can exercise its duty to protect the citizens against the shabbier venalities of democracy. (Though that may not be what Tony Blair meant when he chose to leave them 100% unelected).

With both Labour and Conservative leaders in humiliating thrall to the menacing might of Rupert Murdoch, this is the legitimate time for the unelected Lords to rebel against the elected Commons and stop Murdoch seizing yet another slab of the British media.

Yesterday saw the opening skirmishes over the communications bill: the Lords will vote on it in a few weeks. This vast and baggy bill, packed with important but uncontentious technicalities, contains two momentous threats to the future quality of broadcasting. The key clauses have one sole function - to remove all obstacles to Murdoch seizing Channel 5, overshadowing ITV and, within a short time, providing the main competition to the BBC. The bill abolishes the requirement for owners of TV companies to be British or EU citizens. (Murdoch took US nationality to take over Fox TV: the US bans foreign ownership.)

The other crucial clause removes existing laws that prohibit anyone who owns 20% or more of newspaper readership from buying into TV. Murdoch already owns over 40% of Britain's newspaper readership, as well as his mighty Sky satellite empire.

Pity the wretched ministers charged with pushing through this shameless bill, Downing Street's gun at their heads. Three hapless women - Tessa Jowell at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, together with Patricia Hewitt at the Department of Trade and Industry and Tessa Blackstone leading in the Lords - all look miserable and sound less convincing every time they speak.

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