‘Murdoch clause’ news unwelcomed

U.K. foes of axing owner limits gain ground

LONDON — Political opposition is growing over a change to the U.K.’s proposed cross-media ownership rules that would allow News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch to buy a commercial web.

Dubbed the “Murdoch clause,” it would lift the ban on national newspaper owners having stakes in terrestrial channels. Murdoch owns the U.K.’s four dominant papers, including the Times and mass circulation tabloid the Sun. He also controls leading satcaster BSkyB.

“Should News Corp. or any of its associates acquire, say 35% of Five, its capacity to cross-promote that channel using its dominant satellite position and its newspaper holding would be entirely without precedent,” filmmaker David Puttnam told the House of Lords last week.

Puttnam, who chaired a committee that scrutinized the Communications Bill now being debated in the House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber, already has the support of 60 Labor and 50 Liberal Democrat peers, including former BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey and former chairman of regional commercial broadcaster HTV Nicholas Edwards.

Murdoch has long wanted to break into Blighty’s terrestrial market but has continually denied any interest in Five, in which RTL has a 65% stake. United Business Media has, however, been looking for a buyer for its 35% share.

Five is a logical choice for Murdoch — it is gaining auds and would be relatively cheap to pick up. Blighty’s only other commercial terrestrial web is ITV, but shareholders Granada and Carlton are in the process of merging — a union that can’t be completed until the Communications Bill becomes law.

The House of Lords could vote down the Murdoch clause, which would be a stinging defeat for Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has had to fight hard to persuade politicians to back the law change, which would open up the media to ownership by non-European (read: American) companies.

However, the defeat can be reversed by the House of Commons if Blair can persuade his vast majority in that house to back him.

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell must get the bill through Parliament by the end of July to comply with a European directive.

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