U.K. resists Rupert

Puttnam floats plan to guard Five ownership

LONDON — The British government is poised to accept a proposal from David Puttnam, film producer-turned-media lobbyist, that would make it more difficult for a Rupert Murdoch-owned company to buy terrestrial channel Five.

The Communications Bill, being debated by legislators, would open up Blighty’s media to foreign ownership and lift cross-media restrictions that prevent big newspaper groups from owning Five.

Murdoch’s News Corp. owns four newspapers in the U.K., including the Times and mass circulation tabloid the Sun. He also backs the dominant satcaster BSkyB.

But a Puttnam-led rearguard action in the House of Lords looks increasingly likely to push through changes forcing any large media combo with major press interests to face a public interest test, conducted by regulators.

Changing path

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The government is understood to have realized that a cross-party alliance of peers would vote down the original proposals and is mulling Puttnam’s change.

Murdoch and his lieutenants, including BSkyB CEO Tony Ball, have said repeatedly that News Corp. does not want to buy Five, owned by pan-Euro broadcast giant RTL and United News Media.

But commentators remain skeptical, especially since Ball has said that any rules preventing Murdoch from buying Five are inconsistent. “The Taliban could buy channel Five but Sky would be even worse,” Ball has said.

If Puttnam’s changes are adopted, they will have no impact on the Communication Bill’s other proposals to allow U.S. media groups to buy outright British TV stations, including Five.