Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire was yesterday given Government approval to take full control of BSkyB, a decision that was derided as a “whitewash” by media rivals and “cavalier” by political opponents.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had previously said he was minded to refer the proposed …£8bn deal to the competition authorities, but changed his mind after News Corp offered to spin off Sky News into an independent company to appease concerns over a lack of media plurality. Mr Hunt claimed the spin-off, which will see the news channel being given its own independent chairman and board to guarantee its editorial integrity, was a “welcome step forward”.
He told MPs: “Throughout this process I have been very aware of the potential controversy surrounding this merger. Nothing is more precious to me than the free and independent press for which this country is famous the world over.”
But this cut little ice with Mr Murdoch’s commercial rivals, who claimed that the Sky News arrangement was “pure window dressing”. An alliance of companies that includes the publishers of The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and The Guardian said: “It has been well-documented by former Murdoch editors that arrangements of this kind, including those put in place to protect the independence of The Sunday Times and The Times, have proved wholly ineffective.”
Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Culture Secretary, linked the approval of the deal to the recent choice of the former Conservative Party chairman Lord Patten as the next chairman of the BBC, BSkyB’s broadcasting rival. “This process has exposed an arrogant government, cavalier about its responsibility to be impartial and contemptuous of the importance of transparency in circumstances where there is a high level of public mistrust,” he said.
The Independent editorialises about what the Tory government has just done; endorsed unfettered corporate media power and shoddy “journalism”. How many more wars can we support today, daddy Rupert?
Promises of good behaviour from some media organisations might be credible. But we should remember the nature of Mr Murdoch’s empire. The News of the World appears to have been at the centre of a massive and illegal phone-hacking operation. According to the Labour MP Tom Watson, speaking in the Commons yesterday, journalists employed at other Murdoch titles might have been involved in this, too. Fox News, the Murdoch-owned US channel, is a virulently right-wing broadcaster that has contributed to the disastrous polarisation of the political discourse across the Atlantic. News Corp simply does not merit the benefit of the doubt.
The proposed arrangement also ignores the primary objection to the bid: the power in respect of advertising sales that it will afford News Corp across its range of different media platforms, giving the company a market position that can only be regarded as anti-competitive. At a time when the newspaper industry in particular is experiencing unprecedented pressure on revenues, it could have a catastrophic impact on other publications. Furthermore, News Corp will be able to “bundle” online subscriptions to its newspapers in special offers when BSkyB customers renew their satellite packages – and there would also be scope for intensive cross-promotion of News Corp titles. It all adds up to an advantage for Mr Murdoch’s media empire that verges on the monopolistic.
It does not require a conspiracy theorist to detect something fishy about this meeting of minds between News Corp and the Government. In opposition, Mr Hunt enthusiastically praised Mr Murdoch’s entrepreneurial skills. David Cameron hired a disgraced former News Corp editor, Andy Coulson, to be his director of communications. And Mr Murdoch’s newspapers all threw their weight behind the Conservatives in last year’s election. Mr Hunt’s agreement to allow News Corp to skip past regulatory hurdles as it accrues still greater market power looks uncomfortably like political payback.