A Week in Books

Smith's empire-building should be stopped
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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of months ago, the government wisely blocked Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy Manchester United through his BSkyB satellite channel. Ministers endorsed the principle that the creators and carriers of media content ought to stay as separate entities. Now think what would have happened on Wednesday if that deal had gone through. One Murdoch property - the football club - would have pulled off its improbable triumph on the very day that another - the Sun - proved where Rupe's heart really lies with its ancient topless snaps of a future Royal bride. That might have soured the taste of victory for millions.

Yet, in a minor but still ominous key, the healthy distinction between media originators and distributors has begun to break down this week. On Monday, W H Smith paid pounds 185m for Hodder Headline. City analysts duly noted that the books-and-bits chain with Internet ambitions had bought the firm that publishes the likes of John le Carre and Stephen King. Well, Smith's spending spree (which added a 43 per cent premium to Hodder shares) still looks like something of a mystery yarn, despite the modish guff about using the firm to to generate material for on-line services. Many shrewd observers think that it might turn into a horror story, too.

Monopoly kills creativity. The folk who produce books have no sound reason to sell them as well; in the US, strict anti-trust laws would have ruled out the Smith-Hodder embrace. It represents a throwback to the cash-rich, brain-dead "integration" fever that ruined a dozen notable British publishers in the 1980s. And it may inhibit readers' choice in Smith's 740 outlets, often in places with no rival book retailer.

The Hodder acquisition makes no sense without some firm intention to favour the chain's new in-house producer. Smith's has already unveiled a plan to expand its own-brand book titles by employing Hodder as a sort of tame packager. Yet such an link would only need a contract, not an outright takeover. A direct purchase hints at a deeper, and more sinister design.

If BSkyB had no business owning Man Utd, then neither should Smith's have any right to run le Carre. Or perhaps the clumsy high-street giant - which has a pretty ropy managerial record over recent decades - truly wants to follow the cross-media path of that tasteful and scrupulous gent whose minions bring us the Sun and the News of the World. Someone in the DTI should now be thinking hard about a call of "offside".

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