Culture secretary outlines current thinking on new communications bill saying competition alone not enough
BROADCAST EXCLUSIVE -Media secretary Chris Smith has given the strongest indication to date about the contents of the forthcoming communications bill, making it clear that broadcasters will not be governed purely by competition law in future, but will remain subject to sector-specific regulations, writes John Lewis.

Speaking at an Institute for Public Policy Research fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Smith outlined some of his current thinking for the new legislation.

He said it no longer made sense to have an 'alphabet' of different sets of sometimes contradictory regulations for different broadcasters. 'I'm not sure it's necessary to engage in a bean count over the precise number of minutes that ITV devotes to religious broadcasting in every single week,' he said.

However, he added: 'We must not throw out the baby with the bath water? Can we rely simply on competition policy to regulate the communications sector or do we have to have competition plus? Are there public service issues which have to be considered alongside competition?'

Smith said the government 'cannot simply regard [the media] as another set of goods on a supermarket shelf', adding that there must be diversity in the future to ensure a wide range of choice. This, 'almost certainly', meant pluralism of ownership and direction and ensuring genuine choice, he said.

'It does not just mean a wider numerical choice. It means making sure that the consumer can exercise his or her choice and not be steered in a particular direction because they are on a particular proprietory system.'

Smith warned that while many people already assumed the communications bill - expected in late November or early December - would set up a single regulator, ministers had not yet made up their minds. 'The answer is that we do not know,' he said.