Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Newspaper Society

  The Newspaper Society represents the regional newspaper industry. Its members publish over 1,300 regional and local daily, weekly and Sunday newspaper titles, both paid for and free, throughout the United Kingdom.


  As the Committee is examining the prospects for a draft Communications Bill and developments in policy since the Committee's previous report, we assume that the Committee will include consideration of the Government's consultation paper on media ownership rules. The Newspaper Society is currently consulting its members and will be submitting a full response to the DCMS/DTI. We hope that these preliminary comments are helpful to the Committee's considerations.

  The newspaper industry believes that the newspaper transfer regime must be radically changed. The Newspaper Society has consistently argued for abolition of the special controls that uniquely bind the newspaper industry. We are pleased that the Government's consultation paper acknowledges the burdens of the current regime and its unnecessarily restrictive nature, including:

    —  The significant costs imposed upon the industry, despite only three refusals in the 172 cases considered during the past 21 years.

    —  The particularly disproportionate burden placed upon the acquisition of local newspapers.

    —  Absence of any refusal of any transfer on freedom of expression grounds and lack of any evidence that the regime has had any clear significance in the preservation of day to day freedom of expression.

    —  The clear commercial advantage that parties which do not fall into the definition of existing UK newspaper publishers enjoy, since they can complete any deal without waiting for prior regulatory clearance.

    —  The burdens of criminal sanctions combined with prior consent requirements, in addition to the sanction of a null and void transaction.

  We are pleased that the Government is considering whether prior consent, criminal sanctions and controls over all titles and newspaper assets need to be retained and how to introduce fair competition between all prospective newspaper purchasers.

  Despite these advances in Government policy, the regional newspaper industry is very concerned by its intention, as advanced in the consultation paper, that newspaper companies mergers and transfers should continue to be treated as a special case. This contrasts with the Government's attitude to other media. Under the consultation paper's proposals, consolidation of the broadcasting media will be made easier, and local authorities and advertising agencies would no longer be prohibited from ownership of radio and television. The benefits of broadcasting consolidation are recognised, while general competition law and increasing competition from other media are thought to address adequately any competition problems or plurality concerns.

  In contrast, the consultation paper proposes that newspapers are still to be subjected to a special regime, perhaps involving OFCOM, in addition to both the Competition Commission and appropriate Cabinet Minister. The Society has already expressed its deep reservations about the consultation paper's proposals that OFCOM, a body originating from broadcasting and telecom regulators, assume any role in relation to newspapers and we re-iterate the industry's strong opposition to such a body assuming control over ownership and/or content of the printed press or its websites.

  The Society has consistently argued that general competition law alone ought to apply to newspaper transfers. Any new regime must at least be deregulatory. It ought not add or complicate regulatory hurdles, nor handicap existing newspaper transfers which are not subject to the current regime. It must be put in place at the same time as any deregulation of other media. This remains the regional newspaper industry's view.


  The industry is very disappointed at the failure of the consultation paper to advance any detailed proposals for reform of cross-media ownership. The Newspaper Society supports further liberalisation. In respect of local and regional newspaper cross media ownership of local and regional radio stations, the Society has previously advocated abolition of the current public interest test, contended that the BBC must be taken into account and argued against any stricter limits being placed upon regional newspaper companies' ownership of regional and local radio stations or other media, including digital radio multiplexes.

  The consultation paper is silent on the BBC. It will apparently remain free of the regulatory constraints that control publishers' cross media activities. The diverse and multi-media pursuits of the BBC, licence funded and commercial, provide strong competition to local and regional newspapers' editorial and commercial activities. The development of online services and onset of digital broadcasting will increase such competition yet further. The Communications Bill and regulatory authorities must give greater consideration and weight to the BBC's effect upon local and regional plurality and competition.


  The Newspaper Society's representations on past and present EU and UK legislative initiatives on intellectual property have emphasised the crucial importance of publishers' intellectual property rights. The Society felt that the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 achieved a satisfactory regime for the newspaper industry, in respect both of ownership of copyright and fair dealing exceptions that together enable both day to day journalism, production and publication of newspapers and underlie future investment in and development of the content industries.

  The Society would be happy to provide any further comments or information that the Committee might find helpful.

10 January 2002

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