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Move to relax rules on local media mergers

Regional publishers could find it easier to buy up newspapers after a recommendation made by media regulator Ofcom about local media mergers, which are currently seen as “too onerous”.

Ofcom has recommended that the government considers whether the public interest grounds associated with mergers should be modified so that media plurality on a local level is not considered – but only at the level of the UK or devolved nations

It made the proposal in advice sent to Culture Secretary Maria Miller which also recommended excluding the regional and local media from its news plurality proposals, which would see a periodic review carried out every four or five years looking at the UK media as a whole.

Ofcom’s suggestions, which have been welcomed by the Newspaper Society, come a year after the KM Group scrapped its proposals to buy a series of Northcliffe Media titles after the deal was referred to the Competition Commission.

Santha Rasaiah, director of political, editorial and regulatory affairs at the NS, said: “The NS and its members have long put the case for abolition of the unnecessary and onerous special controls over local media ownership.

“The Government has already abolished local cross-media ownership controls in response. We hope that it will do the same for the public interest aspect of local newspaper mergers.

“Meanwhile, as Ofcom recognises, the competition authorities must change their approach to local media mergers and their crippling costs, to assist the development of local media companies rather than prevent it.”

In a report to Ms Miller, Ofcom said: “We note that the existing regime to deal with the competition issues raised by local media mergers is widely perceived as being too onerous.

“This is not the place to address that concern, but we do believe it is important that it is not exacerbated by the plurality framework.

“We therefore recommend that the Government considers whether the public interest grounds associated with mergers should be modified so as to have the same focus as the periodic review; namely, on those mergers which might affect plurality at the level either of the UK or the devolved nations.”

The recommendations by Ofcom are supplementary to its response to the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt who asked for advice after Ofcom’s report on the proposed NewsCorp/BskyB bid.

Its report, called Measuring Media Plurality, was sent to the Culture Secretary and the Leveson Inquiry in June, suggesting a new periodic review of plurality, taking into account organic growth, mergers, possibly exits and other wider market developments.