MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Number 10 should heed worries over foreign ownership

The little-known Labour peer Lord Currie of Marylebone was last week handed the job of heading the super-regulator Ofcom when it launches next year. Immediately, the Tories were on the rampage with accusations about another of "Tony's cronies landing a top job in public life.

Coupled with Blair's apparent willingness to ride roughshod over the findings of Lord Puttnam's joint committee on the Draft Communications Bill, David Currie's emergence from the dusty vaults of the Treasury will be seen by many as Number 10 imposing its own rule on the media landscape, regardless of regulators or Parliament.

There are several problems with this scenario. First, the Government's Draft Bill was a brave one and, while it left a few unanswered questions, it contained interesting proposals beyond the liberalisation issue that the anti-American Puttnam has chosen to focus on. It should be remembered that the film-making peer has a bitter personal relationship with the US after being shown the door by Columbia Pictures, where he was its first non-US chief executive, in the late 80s.

Then Currie's background - he served two Tory chancellors as an independent adviser - suggests he is more than a Blair poodle. Perhaps the biggest worry about the 56-year-old cello-playing peer is that, despite his background in regulating markets, he will lack the imagination and alchemist's skills necessary to help mould the future of digital convergence.

The problem for Currie is by the time Ofcom is given its powers to replace five regulators, including the Independent Television Commission, the die will be cast in terms of liberalisation of the UK market. Though Puttnam's committee seems obsessed with a US takeover of UK media, it is right to point out that Blair should push for reciprocal agreements in America and elsewhere that would also allow UK media companies to expand.

In recent weeks, advertisers such as Gillette and Glaxo SmithKline have said in Campaign that they don't care about the nationality of companies who own UK broadcasters. But they should.

Potential owners of ITV or Channel 5, such as FoxTV, Disney or AOL/Time Warner, would attempt to fill our screens with a greater proportion of US programming, eroding the UK TV industry's reputation for innovation and creating mass homogenisation of commercial TV. This won't wash with a significant proportion of the UK viewing public, which is likely to depart in droves to the ring-fenced BBC. As ITV discovered in recent years, if you throw enough shit at your audience it will move elsewhere.

US and European companies should be allowed a crack at the UK market but only if they have competition on their own back doors to ensure they keep standards high. For once then, the relatively small concerns of advertisers and agencies coincide with the greater interests of the public whom Currie has a duty to serve.


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