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Pressure builds over media ownership rules

The Newspaper Society has welcomed reports that the government may be considering relaxing rules on cross-media ownership to help local publishers survive the economic downturn.

Lord Carter, the new minister for communications, technology and broadcasting, is expected to give the go-ahead to further consolidation in local media markets in a report due out later this month.

The report, entitled Digital Britain, is set to recommend that local newspaper groups should be allowed to acquire local radio and TV stations as well as expanding their online presence.

Political pressure has been building on the government to do something to help the regional press from MPs concerned about the future of their local papers following the spate of job losses in the industry in the latter half of 2008.

The Newspaper Society’s political, editorial and regulatory affairs director Santha Rasaiah said the NS had successfully campaigned for the relaxation of some cross-media ownership rules in 2003 and that further reform would be welcome.

“However this should not be limited to the cross-media regime. The NS also advocates further reform of newspaper merger controls and a more realistic approach to assessment of competition in local media markets by the competition authorities,” she said.

Outgoing Johnston Press chief exectutive Tim Bowdler hinted that the competition rules could be relaxed in order to allow further consolidation of the regional press in a newspaper interview last weekend.

Mr Bowdler said he believed that the government was “sympathetic” to the industry’s case.

One experienced former regional editor, Neil Fowler, also predicted the change in a series of New Year forecasts recently published on former Press Gazette deputy editor Jon Slattery’s blog.

“Regional newspaper groups will force the Government’s hand over ownership rules with a high-profile deal that will cost many jobs if it doesn’t go through,” he said.