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Opposition to communications bill intensifies

LONDON - The government is facing mounting opposition to its plans to relax media ownership rules concerning Five and ITV, which could delay the publication of the communications bill.

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The communications bill in its current form will relax media ownership legislation that prevents companies from outside the EU buying UK terrestrial broadcasters Five or ITV.

Lord Puttnam, who led an inquiry into the bill last year, was the first to raise concerns about the legislation because he fears that opening up the UK terrestrial TV market to non-EU companies could see them bought by a US media giant that would fill the schedules with US programming.

There have also been calls arguing that the UK should not open its markets so fully to the US when the UK companies are barred from owning US broadcasters.

Now MPs and peers from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are believed to be concerned that the bill would allow Rupert Murdoch, who already owns News International -- publisher of The Times and The Sun -- and BSkyB, to own Five. This, MPs feel, would give him too much power over the UK's media.

The bill is due for its third reading in front of the House of Commons later today and MPs are expected to raise this issue with the government.

These views are being echoed by academics from the London Business School, Goldsmith's College, the University of Westminster and the London School of Economics, who are also concerned about Murdoch's dominance of the UK market.

In a letter to the Financial Times, the academics say they think Five should be protected by similar rules as ITV. The communications bill currently limits newspaper owners from owning ITV.

Murdoch has so far denied he is interested in Five, because he is concentrating on negotiating to buy US satellite TV broadcaster DirecTV.

The government is expected to offer a number of concessions to protect Five and ITV, while still pushing the bill through.

One of these is expected to be that Ofcom would be given the power to ban an acquisition that it felt was not in the public interest.

The bill must become law in July or the government will be in breach of an EC directive governing the telecommunications industry.

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