The first overhaul of broadcasting legislation since 1996 started to take shape this week as the referral of a United/Carlton merger coincided with government moves to launch a communications white paper
The first overhaul of broadcasting legislation since 1996 started to take shape this week as the referral of a United/Carlton merger coincided with government moves to launch a communications white paper and bring forward the BBC's Charter renewal.

The decision by trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers to refer Carlton Communications' merger with United News & Media to the Competition Commission puts the consolidation of ITV on hold for at least three months as it carries out a public interest test.

The referral is expected to trigger a wide-ranging review of ITV ownership, taking into account Granada's intention to bid for either Carlton or United.

The move follows last Thursday's confirmation from Byers and media secretary Chris Smith that the government will publish a joint broadcasting and telecoms white paper this autumn.

A new Bill - which could appear next year - is expected to relax media ownership, sweeping away the current log-jam of media industry referrals, and address convergence and the role of regulation and public service broadcasting.

The white paper could herald a single regulator for broadcasting and telecoms, spelling the end for the BBC governors, whose regulatory role would be subsumed into the new body. At the same time industry sources have indicated that the government will bring forward the timetable for renewing the BBC Charter.

Originally set to begin in 2003 - in anticipation of BBC Charter renewal in 2006 - the process is likely to be accelerated to dovetail with the Bill.

The move will put the highly charged issue of the future of the BBC board of governors at the top of the political agenda as a new Bill is debated.

Since the Davies report into the future funding of the BBC, the government has come under increasing pressure to conduct a root-and-branch review of the BBC's role before 2003. Both the Independent Television Commission and commercial broadcasters have called for an examination of the corporation's public service role as soon as possible.

An ITV spokesman said: 'The future shape of public service broadcasting will be central to the next Broadcasting Bill and you can't begin to deal with that without looking at the BBC.'

The Competition Commission will report on the Carlton/United merger by 16 May. United Broadcasting & Entertainment chief executive Malcolm Wall said he was confident the merger would be approved.

Analysis, page 14Leader, page 15Future of ITV, page 16.