Politicians could be barred from making decisions on media mergers under measures to be included in a new communications bill, the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said. The proposal would end the arrangement under which the business secretary can block the acquisition of media companies on public interest grounds.
Hunt told the Royal Television Society convention that the proposed takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation, which was abandoned at the height of the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s media company in July, raised questions over the role politicians played in approving such deals.
“I was very conscious in the recent BSkyB bid that however fairly I ran the process, people were always going to question my motives,” he said.
“I tried to deal with this by seeking and publishing independent advice at every stage of the process,” Hunt said. “But in competition law, we deal with this more robustly by removing politicians from the process altogether. This ensures justice is seen to be done as well as actually being done. We should ask whether the same should apply for the protection of media plurality.”
The shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis, earlier this year called for ministers to have their powers to block media bids removed
Hunt also confirmed that regulators, including Ofcom and the Competition Commission, could be allowed to launch investigations into media plurality without the trigger of a takeover bid: “I believe media plurality should mirror competition policy more closely, with independent regulators given the right to start investigations into media plurality and propose remedies to protect plurality even in the absence of corporate transactions.
He said newspapers would not fall under the jurisdiction of broadcasting regulator Ofcom even as they produce more video content on their websites, a move that will be welcomed by the press
Hunt challenged the industry to put forward proposals about replacing the Press Complaints Commission, saying its successor was likely to cover newspaper and magazine content across all platforms, including audio and video on the internet
“It cannot be sensible to regulate newsprint through the PCC, on-demand websites through Atvod and IPTV through Ofcom,” he said
As expected, Hunt laid out plans for a crackdown on piracy, detailing a range of proposals designed to make it more difficult for illegal websites to carry pirated films and movies
They include forcing advertisers to remove their content from websites carrying illegal material and making banks and credit card companies responsible for removing their payment services.
He said Internet service providers should force their customers to opt in or out of parental control safeguards when they sign contracts in order to better protect children from offensive content.
The measures outlined by Hunt are likely to be included in a green paper to be published by the end of the year. A draft communications bill is expected by April 2013, with a new act expected to be passed by 2015.