Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Newspaper owner warns OFT: 'Relax the ownership rules and the regional press will be left dominated by two major groups'

The NUJ has published a submission to the Office of Fair Trading in which free newspaper entrepreneur Chris Bullivant warns any relaxation of the media merger and acquisition rules will lead to the regional press being dominated by just two big groups.
Bullivant has been publishing free papers in the Midlands for around 30 years and launched Europe's first free daily, the Birmingham Daily News. His Observer Standard Group is currently in administration.
His submission directly opposes the claims by Britain's biggest regional publishers that a relaxation in merger rules is vital to the survival of the industry.
Bullivant tells the OFT:
"I believe the large publishers are advocating an exchange of assets between them to create greater local newspaper monopolies...Their zeal for mergers is no secret - indeed it has largely prompted this review and discussion document.
"But they have hidden their true motives behind a spurious argument that the current rules negates their ability to turn the threat of digital media to their print businesses into an opportunity. Newspaper publishers had, and indeed in many ways, still have the ability to be the number one choice for the public on the web. They have just not gone about it very well, as evidenced by the Fish4 failure.
"And backed it with the implicit threat that there will be hundreds of closures and thousands of job losses unless they are allowed to consolidate their position. The reality is that all of these large groups built themselves on a sea of debt which has become unrepayable."
Bullivant adds: "Their answer to their impatient backers is: 'Don't worry - we'll get the government to change the rules so that the four of us can carve the market up profitably again. Those that want to get out, get out clean, those who remain clean up the marketplace.'
He asks: "Is it really the job of the government in a free market to allow the creation of even greater monopolies to save these companies from their own bad business judgement?"
Bullivant concludes: "if merger and consolidation is allowed into two big groups, they will have an even greater stranglehold on the marketplace to keep budding publishers out of whatever ilk - and the ability to charge advertisers what they like and dish up whatever quality of journalism to readers they feel is adequate."
You can read Bullivant's full submission on the NUJ website.

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