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Rupe near TV loop

U.K. bill would give him shot at owning Ch. 5

LONDON — Global media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s ambition of controlling a British terrestrial TV web moved a step nearer Tuesday as the government published plans to relax cross-media ownership rules.

Under the government’s long-awaited Communications Bill, he could bid for Channel 5, the U.K.’s last terrestrial network.

But in a sop to critics of Murdoch’s dominant position in British media, the bill will continue to block anyone with more than a 20% stake of the newspaper market from acquiring ITV, Blighty’s biggest commercial terrestrial broadcaster. This rules out Murdoch, who owns four leading national newspapers.

Non-European Union companies also will have the right to buy TV licenses in the U.K. for the first time. Significantly, it was not clear whether American media companies will be given the go-ahead for takeovers.

Why not Oz, Canucks?

“It makes no sense that French, Italian or German companies can hold licenses but Australian or Canadian ones can’t,” Media Secretary Tessa Jowell said.

Another rule that the government plans to do away with in this round of legislation, which will also set up super-regulator Ofcom spanning broadcasting and telephony, is the one that prevents single ownership of ITV.

This will pave the way for a merger between Granada and Carlton, subject to competition law. This issue has been around for several years and is more pressing than ever since the pair lost around $1.4 billion on their failed pay TV service, ITV Digital, which shuttered last week.

Media ‘overregulated’

Speaking to the House of Commons, Jowell said: “For too long the U.K.’s media has been overregulated and overprotected from competition.

“Despite this, the last 10 years have seen a dramatic increase in the range of voices in the marketplace. The draft bill we have published today will liberalize the market, so removing unnecessary regulatory burdens and cutting red tape, but at the same time retain some key safeguards that will protect the diversity and plurality of our media.”

Another feature of today’s bill, which runs to 260 clauses and is likely to become law in the autumn, is the essentially unchanged role of the BBC’s governors who, despite the creation of Ofcom, will continue to be responsible for overseeing content issues.