I must confess that I have not watched the development of Ofcom with the care I should have. In the distance I heard the voices of colleagues muttering that the new media regulator would interfere in the freedom of the press, but I chose not to listen. I thought that Ofcom, as the successor of the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Oftel and the Radio Communications Agency, would concern itself with issues which do not on the whole concern the rest of us very much. Dear reader, I have let you down.
Ofcom opened for business on 29 December with a spanking new office and an enormous staff. The first thing we learnt was that the regulator had awarded more than 70 of its staff contracts worth more than £100,000 a year in pay and perks. This was significantly in excess of Ofcom’s earlier estimates. Evidently this new arm of the state will be quite a little gravy train. Lord Currie, the chairman, and, it so happens, a good friend of Gordon Brown’s, will be paid £133,000 a year for a four-day week. Stephen Carter, the regulator’s chief executive, receives £250,000 a year.
Well, let’s not get too worked up about other people’s salaries. Much more disturbing are the draft guidelines governing newspaper takeovers which, without beating about the bush, Ofcom has already issued. Imagine that a company wishes to take over a newspaper group. To be more precise, imagine that the newspaper group owns the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, titles which may shortly be on the auction block. In that event, Ofcom has a duty to advise the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether the acquisition is in the public interest.
Fair enough, you may say. The state has a legitimate interest in trying to ensure that no single publishing group dominates any newspaper sector in this country. (This is not a duty which previous governments have discharged with much success. In 1981 Rupert Murdoch was allowed by the Tories to buy the Sunday Times and the Times, thereby increasing his share of the national newspaper market defined by circulation to well over 30 per cent.) But it is one thing to attempt to hold the line against monopoly in any area of commerce — a job done by the old Monopolies Commission which has been succeeded by the Competition Commission — quite another to become involved in the editorial policies of newspaper groups.
Ofcom’s draft document shows that it will take a minute interest in the content of newspapers. Where two groups propose to merge, the regulator will require detailed information about ‘column inches dedicated to advertising, regional/local stories, sport, human interest stories, features, etc.’. It will want to know about ‘the current level of contact’ between a proprietor and his editor and other senior members of staff, and ‘the likely level of involvement of proprietors in editorial decisions’. The regulator will also expect to be told whether a buyer of a newspaper intends to retain ‘the existing editor and reporting staff’, and it will want to know ‘what arrangements are envisaged for ensuring accurate presentation of news’.
Some people have suggested that these and other exacting tests may make it more difficult for Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers, to acquire the Telegraph titles. His autocratic habits, his fondness for dismissing staff and possibly his record as a pornographer might count against him. Naturally I would be very glad to see Ofcom rejecting Mr Desmond, but reasons invoked to disqualify him might be directed against more deserving parties, not only in the auction for the Telegraph Group but in other future bids. It is surely no business of Ofcom, as an arm of government, to pry into the detailed editorial plans of any newspaper group, and to rule against a particular bidder if it does not approve of these plans.
There may be a case for such interference in broadcasting companies, which are licensed and limited by the government. But newspapers are in a different category. They are not licensed. You or I could not set up a television channel tomorrow, but we could start a newspaper. Are we to be told what we can put in it? So long as they operate within the laws of libel and do not endanger national security, newspapers must be free to write whatever they want. And yet here is Ofcom apparently seeking to establish its own ideas as to what a newspaper should contain. No doubt it would assert that it merely wishes to maintain plurality of ownership and a diversity of titles, but it is not difficult to see how over time it could shape the content of newspapers. And if it is prepared to issue such guidelines within a few days of opening its doors for business, might it not have even more far-reaching plans up its sleeve? Ofcom is the brainchild of an interfering and overbearing government. We have never been closer to state control of the press.
Last week I mentioned that the Sunday Telegraph has not exactly been assiduous in reporting and commenting upon the tribulations of Hollinger International, which owns the Telegraph titles as well as this magazine, but I rather skated over the role of the Independent. The Guardian and the Financial Times follow every twist and turn of the unfolding story, and scarcely a day passes without some new revelation. Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and Times are almost as vigilant — and as unsympathetic. By contrast, the Independent cannot work up much interest in the story.
It is easy to see why rival newspapers should rejoice in the difficulties of Lord Black and Hollinger. But the Independent is no less of a competitor. Why, then, its reticence? Possibly the paper is, not for the first time, being a bit sleepy, yet it has a perfectly good media editor who, as it happens, is jumping ship for the Times. A more likely explanation may be that Tony O’Reilly, the Independent’s proprietor, thinks that very rich men should not, on the whole, throw mud pies at one another. He may be observing the old proprietorial saw that press baron should not devour press baron. The Guardian and the Financial Times, on the other hand, have no proprietor, and therefore do not observe these niceties. As for Rupert Murdoch, he was never part of this club, and anyway does not take prisoners.
A recent item in the Observer mentioned a dinner held in honour of the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan, and represented this as a largely Spectator-inspired affair. The implication was that Gilliganistes are generally right-wing. This is certainly not true, if that dinner is anything to go by. Three Spectator columnists, including myself, were present. There were also one New Labour former minister, one Labour backbencher and one left-wing Welsh Nationalist MP. A Guardian journalist was present, and there were also two senior executives from the Observer, though that paper’s item somehow omitted to mention this. It is one of the strengths of the Save Andrew Gilligan campaign that it brings together people of differing political persuasions.