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Cut restrictions to save the Press – says Trinity Mirror

Local newspapers could end up losing out because of merger rules pushed through Parliament 27 years ago, publishing group Trinity Mirror is claiming.

The Fair Trading Act 1973 still governs newspaper mergers today.

The group is claiming it imposes unfair restrictions on simple newspaper mergers, leaving competitors outside the business free to push ahead.

In a submission to the Government on the forthcoming communications white paper, the group – which owns a host of daily and weekly titles including the Birmingham Post and Mail, the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo and the South London Press – also looks at cross-media ownership, regulation and new media.

Trinity Mirror acknowledges the 1973 Act’s aims to protect consumers from a concentration of ownership but adds: “This 1973 Act could become detrimental to local newspaper groups at the very time when newspapers are facing threats to their viability from competing advertising routes to market.

“The legal context in which newspapers can or cannot consolidate leads to a distortion of the market.”

The report says the timetable created in simple newspaper mergers by mandatory references to the Competition Commission gives unfair advantage in contested bids to non-newspaper owning parties.

“If newspaper groups are not allowed to consolidate they will be put at an irreversible competitive disadvantage,” it says.

“As foreign companies assimilate national heritage titles in their own quest for consolidation, local newspaper groups must be allowed to operate within a more stimulating environment. Legislation enacted to protect plurality is in danger of becoming detrimental to its longevity.”

Trinity Mirror argues that newspaper transfer provisions in the 1973 Act should be revoked and normal merger rules should apply to newspaper consolidation.

In the report, Trinity Mirror also looks at cross-media mergers, conceding that newspapers are one of many mediums people could choose to get information from, and calling for a complete removal of cross-media restrictions.

It says: “The gradual shrinkage in our industry indicates that our established consumer base is turning to a vast array of alternative means.”

The slight relaxation in media ownership regulations in the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996 was a “helpful move in the right direction”.

“However, we believe the time has come for the removal of all “cross-media” restrictions.

“British companies must be able to hold their position in an ever-converging market.

“To do this, they must be able to increase in scale and that will only be possible through consolidation. “

Trinity Mirror believes the “20 per cent” rule limiting ownership of terrestrial television licences by national newspapers; radio stations by national newspapers and local radio stations by local newspapers should be revoked.

Cross-media mergers should simply be subject to normal competition and merger rules with no media specific legislation,” it says.

Trinity Mirror is the largest publisher in the UK and the second largest in Europe, with publications including the national and regional press, trade magazines, exhibitions, on-line publications and a national Internet service provider.

The full report to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department of Trade and Industry, is available on line at Trinity Mirror.

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