Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940-948)|
THURSDAY 4 JULY 2002
940. You state that "the Government's treatment
of regional and local newspapers adversely contrasts with its
proposals for broadcast media". Does that mean you do not
accept the contention of the commercial radio sector that the
greatest burden of the proposed rules on local cross-media ownership
falls on the radio sector?
(Mr Parker) I think we are making two basic points
here: the first is that the legislation is proactively promoting
consolidation of radio and television and our view, as David has
already stated, is that we have a sense that the proposals that
are currently on the table are more regulatory rather than less
regulatory, which is what we were promised. We cannot miss the
point that has been made earlier that the current framework is
a single page in the document and yet the new proposals run to
two pages, even if we are not yet familiar with the detail of
them. So our sense is that, purely from a local newspaper perspective,
the proposals as currently framed are more regulatory rather than
deregulatory, as we have been promised.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
941. As you know the government is proposing
to lift a prohibition on the ownership of broadcast licences,
and you are concerned about the potential for government-controlled
broadcasting. Do you think your concerns about local authority
ownership of broadcast licences could be met through licensing
conditions, or do you believe that the existing prohibition should
not be lifted? In other words, do you think you could control
it or would you like to see the existing prohibition going on?
(Mr Parker) I think we would like the current situation
continue. We are concerned about two aspects on local authorities:
one is whether that is the appropriate way in which public money
should be dispensed or spent and, secondly, whether a local authority
will be able and capable to deal with the potential commercial
and other conflicts of interest that may arise between editorial
content and any advertising content that that radio station or
broadcast media may carry.
942. So you would like the existing system to
(Mr Parker) Yes.
943. I want to extend your logic on newspaper
mergers to cross-media ownership. Imagine I am the MP for Cambridge
rather than Newcastle-under-Lyme. The logic of your argument is
that I should have no concern, there should be no public interest
issues involved at all, were the newspapers in Cambridge to be
concentrated in one hand along with the local radio stations,
leaving just the BBC as the sole independent radio voice. Is that
your view? That there would be no public interest in issues arising
out of that situation occurring?
(Mr Parker) No, we are not saying that there is no
public interest. I think what we have commented on in terms of
the ownership regulations is that, as far as radio is concerned,
we have a concern that in some of the market places that we could
be talking about it may be impractical to have three radio stations.
There are some markets at the moment where there are only two
radio stations and, at the moment, local newspaper publishers
are allowed to own one of those two subject to a public interest
test and we would like to see that continue. As far as the issue
of the local newspaper itself is concerned and content, we believe,
as others have said before us, that if a local newspaper publisher
is not responsive to and is not alive and alert to the needs of
its market place, then at the time competition will emerge.
944. So taking Cambridge as an example, you
do see a case in viewing cross-media ownership issues in principle
for a public interest test but not purely reflecting newspaper
(Mr Newell) At the moment the position will be, because
of the economics of the media industry and the way in which we
compete, in particular, for advertisers and the way in which the
regional local newspaper industry has developed, that it would
be very rare anywhere in the country at the moment in a town such
as Cambridge for there to be a number of local newspaper players.
Consolidation through economics and for other reasons has already
occurred in many areas and has been subject to vigorous newspaper
specific merger regime. In nearly all cases, and there have been
over 100 in the current regime, the Competition Commission have
practically spent more time looking at newspaper transfer cases
than at any other sector of the economy in local and regional
newspaper cases, and in nearly all cases there has never been
a finding on grounds of editorial freedom or editorial content
that the mergers should not go through, so we live in the real
media world at present that I describe. What the government proposals
allow which would not happen at the moment is, if the owner of
the Cambridge paper were to buy a very small circulation newspaper
on the fringes of Cambridgeshire, the Secretary of State would
have the discretion on public interest grounds to trigger a reference
mechanism. That is an increase in the application of statutory
control rather than a decrease, and the point I was making earlier
is that it is of particular concern to small and medium-sized
publishers who have to compete with all the other range of media
and who also have to survive economically 70 or 80 per cent on
945. Can I extend the invitation I mentioned
earlier to other newspaper owners? You are clearly attracted by
the so-called light touch, less regulation, and that has an appeal
but necessarily means a move to self-regulation. Mr Kass made
the point that to be successful that form of regulation has to
be credible and perceptively credible. Do you have suggestions
as to how self-regulation might be framed in order to sustain
and also to win, over time, public confidence and, if you do,
could you get back to us quite quickly?
(Mr Parker) As far as self-regulation is concerned
as it applies to local newspapers and regional newspapers, we
have a fairly flourishing and we believe successful self-regulatory
framework through PCC in terms of editorial content and also through
the ASA, the Advertising Standards Authority, in the context of
946. One of the points that ISBA made is it
needs to be demonstrably working. There have been arguments, for
example, that the PCC is rather good but that the PCC does not
have a great deal of public confidence attached to it?
(Mr Parker) With respect, we are here to represent
the interests of local and regional newspapers. Every single survey
that we have ever conducted, either independently or by individual
member companies, has pointed to the fact that local and regional
newspapers are trusted as a medium more than any other, so we
would argue and suggest that that is a reflection of the fact
that self-regulation is working pretty well.
947. I am really offering you an opportunity,
which you may decide that you do not want to take, that if you
want to move away from regulation to self-regulation, then the
onus comes on you to strengthen self-regulation to the point where
it gains enormous credibility and confidence, and you may be right
in terms of the area you specifically represent but I am challenging
you and saying that if you want to avoid regulatory creep, then
there is a moral obligation on you to look at your own self-regulatory
practices and say, "Look, not only are they working but,
year on year, we have strengthened them".
(Mr Parker) Yes.
948. May I ask the Bill team whether there are
any questions on the move from the de minimis area from circulation
to a rather more complex formula?
(Mr Metcalfe) The provisions on de minimis would align
the new regime with the general merger regime being incorporated
into the Enterprise Bill and are similar to the general merger
de minimis provisions in the current Fair Trading Act.
Chairman: Are there any other questions that
have arisen as a result of the evidence? If not, thank you all
very much indeed.