JUST HOW far will Tony Blair go in his pursuit of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch? Blair is set to rip up the findings of a parliamentary committee that discussed his government's draft Communications Bill. The committee advised New Labour to scrap its plans to loosen controls on British TV that would allow Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV to gobble up Channel 5.
But, faced with a choice between Murdoch and a group of democratically elected politicians, Blair knows which side he is on. Blair wants to ignore the whole process he set up over the draft Communications Bill because it hasn't come up with the answer he wanted. Earlier this year the government announced it was preparing to scrap rules preventing US companies buying into British TV.
Australian-born Murdoch is a US citizen for tax avoidance purposes. The new legislation also proposed that newspaper owners should be allowed to buy British TV stations. Murdoch already controls over 35 percent of the newspaper market in Britain through his News International company, which produces the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World.
New Labour's legislation was so controversial that the government had to set up a joint parliamentary committee to scrutinise the plans. The draft Communications Bill was to be handed over to 'people power'. An online discussion forum was set up, allowing both experts and members of the public to have their say.
But the parliamentary committee did not back Blair's open door policy for Murdoch. It said it couldn't see the benefits of opening up British TV stations to US companies while the US continues its blanket ban on foreign companies owning US TV or radio stations.
Murdoch is already looking to extend his reach in Britain by making a bid with his BSkyB satellite company and the BBC to buy up the remnants of ITV Digital. He would love to get his first foothold in UK terrestrial TV by buying up Channel 5. The TV channel has not to date made a profit in its five-year lifetime, losing £49 million last year. It is rumoured to be up for sale in the coming months. But Murdoch won't be able to gobble it up if his friend Tony doesn't change the media ownership laws in time. Does it matter if Murdoch gets Channel 5?
When Channel 4, the station supposedly devoted to minority interests and culture, gives us programmes like Big Brother, can TV get any worse, whoever owns it? But Blair and culture secretary Tessa Jowell are not motivated by an attempt to boost the quality of what we watch. Blair wants to do Murdoch a favour, hoping to get some support from his papers during the crucial euro debates ahead.
The original proposals in the legislation kept the ban on Murdoch's empire building. But when the draft bill went to Downing Street for 'finishing touches' this was dramatically altered. Jowell claims the legislation will bring a 'plurality of owners and a diversity of output'. It will be just the opposite.
If Murdoch's empire is increased it will mean less room for independent TV productions. Instead we will all have to sit through even more dross on TV.