Fingers crossed for a Dorrell cure

What an appalling mess. No, not the Saatchi imbroglio for once, but the Government’s so-called media policy. The Broadcast Act 1990 seemed ill-conceived at the time. Now it has more holes through it than a piece of timber riddled with death-watch beetle.

Will the Government clear out this deadwood with sweeping new legislation? Not before the next election it won’t. Ideological reverses on the Post Office and British Rail make the possibility of another dbâcle just too politically sensitive, say observers.

However, the problems continue to well up and Stephen Dorrell, whose hapless task it is as Heritage Secretary to deal with them, cannot entirely shrug off responsibility. Most pressing, of course, is the vexed issue of cross-media ownership. But there is a growing suspicion that other agenda, such as Channel 4’s funding formula and privacy laws, will be spatchcocked onto the review.

Come March, when the report is expected, what will Dorrell actually do? The options point in different directions. Personally, he should be keen to heighten his non-descript profile: this is just the kind of issue to do it. But, as suggested above, he will be governed by wider political considerations. The result, therefore, is likely to be a glorious fudge. A Green Paper promoting further consultation would be an attractive way forward (politically, that is). But it should be resisted: it would rub further salt into the wounds of already aggrieved parties which the Government can ill-afford to alienate.

There is, after all, an obvious asymmetry – almost a “natural injustice” – in national newspapers being held to 20 per cent holdings in UK terrestrial TV and national radio stations , while Rupert Murdoch dominates BSkyB and, ludicrously, three TV sales houses are allowed to ride roughshod over the “rules” and carve up 70 per cent of all UK TV sales.

The nature of fudge suggests that, after all the prevarication of consultation, the newspapers will have their ceiling upped to 30 per cent. This has the additional merit of avoiding major legislation.

Only trouble is, it won’t appease the press. And without their serried support, the Conservative Party’s chances of re-election will be even slimmer than they are already.

Dorrell’s cross-media options, page 36

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