After the Empire: media plurality

Maggie JonesBaroness Maggie Jones is Labour's Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords

Today Lord Fowler once again pressed the Government to get a grip on the growing scandal of media ownership in this country. From the Labour frontbench we support the call for greater media plurality and are urging the Government to act now to tighten up Ofcom’s powers to intervene.

No one yet knows how far the scandal of phone hacking and corruption within News International will spread. But the recent arrests at the Sun, following on from the evidence of endemic phone hacking at the News of the World, illustrate all too well what can happen when one media organisation builds up too much power in this country. James Murdoch may hope his resignation as Chair of News International will divert attention from his father’s empire, but the questions must roam more widely than his fate. And at the heart of the US parent company, News Corp, there are now serious questions to be asked by its predominantly American shareholders about how it is managed and run in the future.

The latest development is that News Corp might be thinking of selling News International to protect the global media empire from being engulfed by the scandal. But without adequate controls this might have the effect of transferring media power from one undesirable owner to another. Even Richard Desmond’s Media conglomerate has been mentioned as a possible buyer. This should be ringing alarm bells at DCMS and No 10.

The proposed Communications Bill, expected in the next Queen’s Speech, may provide a longer-term opportunity to explore these issues of media domination in some detail. But in the meantime the Government could act now to tighten Ofcom’s powers to intervene to protect media plurality in the UK. 

Using secondary legislation it is possible to amend the Enterprise Act 2002 to enable Ofcom to apply the ‘fit and proper person’ test at an earlier stage of media mergers and also if new evidence comes to light, rather than having to wait on a trigger ‘event’ such as a takeover or a formal referral. The Government should take a lead on this now to reassure the British people that they will never again allow one media empire to dominate our public life.

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