Joint Committee on Draft Communications Bill Report


281. The provisions of the draft Bill relating to media ownership give the Secretary of State extensive powers to amend the law on media ownership by means of secondary legislation subject to affirmative resolution.[537] Secondary legislation may be initiated both to give effect to a recommendation of the triennial review by OFCOM and at any other time, although the Secretary of State must consult OFCOM in the latter case. The purpose of these powers is to ensure that future provision for media ownership can maintain the flexibility that the Government considers previous legislation has lacked.[538]

282. The Government itself has previously acknowledged that "some would argue … that the issues involved [in media ownership] are too important to be left to secondary legislation and deserve the more thorough scrutiny that primary legislation makes possible".[539] In the last Parliament the Culture, Media and Sport Committee considered that "matters of such Parliamentary and public importance as media ownership and control should not be open to significant amendment by means of secondary legislation".[540] The Radio Authority thought that the powers of review and revision would result in "endless lobbying by special groups" and create commercial uncertainty.[541] BECTU saw the powers as a recipe for "creeping consolidation".[542]

283. Flexibility is a merit in legislation, but in this context it appears to be perceived as an economic tool, when the primary aim of media ownership rules is to protect plurality. This is a matter which is central to the democratic process and is deserving of the full parliamentary process of primary legislation to establish whether change is justified, whether the mechanism of change is correctly drafted or could be improved by amendments and whether the full legislative consequences have been considered. In due course, if the additional plurality test for the OFT and the Competition Commission that we have recommended can be demonstrated to be working effectively, Parliament may be willing to delegate almost all decisions on media ownership to those competition authorities, providing the "future-proofing" that the Government seeks. We do not believe this time has yet come. General powers to revise almost all primary legislation on media ownership by means of secondary legislation provide "future-proofing" at an unacceptable cost in terms of effective parliamentary control. We recommend that the provisions of the final Bill on media ownership should not include any powers for the Secretary of State to revise primary legislation by means of secondary legislation other than in the limited case of the Channel 3 nominated news provider.

537   Policy, para 9.8; Clauses 262, 263 and 264(5), Schedule 14, paras 6, 10, 11-13, 15. Back

538   Policy, p 4 and paras 9.2.3, 9.8. Back

539   Media Ownership Rules, para 6.6.3. Back

540   HC (2000-01) 161-I, para 45. Back

541   Memorandum submitted by Radio Authority. Back

542   Ev 332, para 9; Q 835. Back

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Prepared 31 July 2002