Leading Article: Murdoch must not be allowed to gain a media strangleho ld

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The Independent Culture
RUPERT MURDOCH'S bid for Manchester United has stirred up a good deal of ugly emotion. The issue needs a calmer look. Sky has put tens of millions of pounds into football, far more than the previous gentlemen's agreements in terrestrial TV yielded for the sport. More football is broadcast than ever before, partly owing to competition from the satellite broadcaster. Football is booming in Britain.

Yet there are real, rational questions to be asked about the wisdom of allowing Murdoch to buy the clubs themselves - especially as he is attempting to buy the brand leader. True, money is no guarantee of footballing success; it has done Alan Sugar little good at Tottenham. But anyone wooed by Murdoch's promises should recall the promises of editorial independence that he broke when he bought The Times and The Sunday Times.

Those who think that he will allow United to go their own way should also look at the coverage of his bid in The Sun, which splashed the headline "Gold Trafford" on its front page. The Murdoch empire is not characterised by freedom for its constituent parts: Old Trafford will be simply one part of a grander design.

This raises the core question of monopoly. If United is not free to go about its business, then it will be used to promote the interests of Murdoch's media outlets, especially the jewel in its crown, Sky television. When the television contract for the Premiership comes up for renewal in 2002, it will be open for Murdoch to influence the decision of the FA. By threatening to walk away from any deal, perhaps to a proposed European super-league, Murdoch will possess a veto. United is the largest, best supported and richest club in the League; otherwise Murdoch would not have wanted to buy it. The Premiership would mean little without it; other clubs might be forced to give in to Sky's demands.

This would represent an unhealthy amount of vertical integration in the television sports industry; Murdoch would effectively control the product from beginning to end. Competition, which Sky opened up, would be choked off; access to the most popular sport in the country would be dominated by one man. Anyone who has witnessed the disaster Sky's dictates have visited upon Rugby League, such as moving it to the summer, will shudder at the thought.

The advent of cable television, with the proliferation of channels this will bring, is a precious opportunity to increase choice for the viewer. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission should consider just how much a Murdoch-owned United will narrow that choice, and reject the bid. This is not just about football; it is also about control of the media.

There is also a political aspect. For one thing, it matters more to millions of voters than all the party politics they see in Parliament; it is still an activity that binds the country together. The Government must also decide who its real friends are. Up until now, ministers have seemed to believe that Murdoch can be won round to their views, especially on Europe, by persuasion. They must be beginning to realise that this will never happen. In that situation, New Labour cannot allow a fruitless search for one man's favour to prejudice its views on decisions of national importance. If the MMC were to recommend the rejection of the United deal, it would provide the Government with a wonderful opportunity to show that it can stand up to Murdoch.

The Government is starting to look tarnished: Blair's reputation for trustworthiness is fading, and he is increasingly seen as aloof and arrogant. If it were to obey the wishes of a media magnate who wants a stranglehold on one of the most popular viewing choices in the country, its standing would fall further. If government does not exist to fight monopolies and vested interests, and to open up choices for citizens, what is it for?