Vince Cable’s indiscreet comment to two Daily Telegraph undercover reporters, posing as his constituents, that he had ‘declared war’ on Murdoch obviously damaged the broad-based movement of opposition to News Corporation’s planned takeover of BSkyB.
It also gave a Christmas present to the Murdoch media empire whish issued a statement about ‘shock and dismay’ at Cable’s comments and raised questions about the ‘fairness and due process’ of the Ofcom public interest inquiry - the results of which have not been made public but are likely to have recommended a referal of the matter to the Competition Commission. Andrew Neil, the former Sunday Times editor announced on Sky News that a ‘very expensive ad campaign’ had been pulled by News Corporation after Cable’s gaffe because Murdoch was now confident the deal would be waived through.
However the focus of those opposed to the BSkyB takeover has now been redirected to the suitability of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt taking responsibility for this case. His own website carries an interview with him in which he says Rupert Murdoch has ‘done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person. We would be the poorer and wouldn’t be saying that British TV is the envy of the world if it hadn’t been for him being prepared to take that commercial risk.’
Two points about this statement are worth noting. Firstly, to claim that Murdoch has made British TV the’ envy of the world’ is ludicrous. Rather the BBC, which Murdoch and his son James relentlessly attack in speeches and through their newspapers, has played that role through sustaining distinctive, original programme-making across a range of genres (documentary, current affairs, drama, comedy, natural history) which are invisible on Sky. In the USA, in contrast to impartial news reporting required in the UK, Fox News is the mouthpiece for the Tea Party and the far-right fringes of the Republican Party. Rupert Murdoch is on record supporting a UK variant of Fox News.
Secondly, through his public statements attacking the BBC, and a number of other supportive comments he has made about Murdoch, there are serious questions about Hunt’s ability to oversee in any open, independent way the next stage of the process in this inquiry. The Ofcom report should immediately trigger the next stage, a full Competition Commission inquiry, without delay.
The proposed BSkyB takeover by News Corporation goes to the heart of arguments about media ownership, democracy and power. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) in its evidence to the Ofcom inquiry argued that Rupert Murdoch has played ‘a corrosive role in UK politics with governments, fearful of antagonising him, shaping policies to win or hold on to his support’. We can also expect an unrelenting lobbying process to push the deal through. Hunt has already had un-minuted meetings with James Murdoch and BSkyB’s chief executive Jeremy Darroch, and more will follow to keep up the pressure.
The CPBF also argued that if the merger took place it would be a ‘transformative shift’ in UK media ownership and have a negative impact on media plurality. Take news provision. Already Sky News, wholly owned by BSkyB, is the only commercial 24 hour news channel. It provides the news for the majority of all UK commercial radio stations and for C5. ITN is the only other commercial news provider but it is vulnerable. If the merger goes ahead it is highly likely that in less than five years time Sky News could be the sole provider of television and radio news in the UK, controlled by single individual who by then also own over 40% of Britain’s national press. It is a terrifying prospect for democracy.
That is why we need to think more broadly about what we can do to oppose the deal. Clearly there needs to a full debate in Parliament (such a debate, initiated by Lord Putnam, took place in the House of Lords in November 2010). But there needs to be a broader public campaign which links concerns about Murdoch with the campaign against cuts and tuition fees.