Stop Murdoch now or forget it

Unless he is tackled within months, the monster created by the main parties will snatch total control of British television
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The Independent Online
For all the hot air and passion, most things in politics are not final: they can be reversed. But something is about to happen that will effect us and our children in perpetuity, changing the culture of British broadcasting forever.

This is a desperately urgent matter for there may only be a month or two left before it is too late - and yet no one is talking about it. Rupert Murdoch is about to seize control of the entire future of broadcasting. But where is the outcry in Parliament? Where the nightly debates on television? Where the crowds of protesters?

A particularly nasty political conspiracy, helped by an almost impenetrably complex new technology, has kept the public in ignorance. Say the words "digital broadcasting" and people sigh with incomprehension or shudder with future shock. But it is time to grasp the facts.

With the knowing (yet deniable) connivance of both Labour and Conservatives, Rupert Murdoch is about to snatch control of British television from under our noses like the most brilliant of master burglars. Armed with every device to switch off alarms and soothe the watchdogs, he is pulling off the greatest broadcasting heist of all time. He is within a whisker of controlling virtually everything - and the deed will be done by Christmas unless we stop him now.

The trouble is that when anyone tries to explain all this, it gives people brainache. Explaining it to you in comprehensible terms will not be easy. The editor of these pages said glumly, "Oh God, you're not going to use the word `transponder', are you?" I will try not to, so please stay the course - this is vitally important. Here we go:

In October 1997 BSKyB will launch its new digital service. Those who buy a new box to sit on top of their television sets (price around pounds 200) will gain access to some 150 channels. What's more, they will get interactive services so they can shop, bank, call up films or archiveprogrammes, book tickets or join in game shows. Television will never be the same again. Any Luddites out there who may bleat, "But why do we want this stuff, haven't we got enough already?" will go the way of those who doubted we needed colour TV. We may not need all this but we are going to get it and when we have got it we won't be able to do without it. That is the ineluctable nature of progress. And this is not in some far distant future. This is next year.

Murdoch is, as ever, two or three years ahead of everyone else. He has already called for bids from manufacturers to make his magic digital boxes. By next year, within months, they will start rolling off production lines - aiming to supply at least 30 per cent of the population within five years.

Once a huge number of households have the Murdoch box, receiving all Sky's digital services, plus the usual terrestrial channels 1-5, it is thought by market analysts extremely unlikely that many people will want to buy a second incompatible box with which to receive a competing set of digital services on terrestrial television including whatever BBC, ITV and Channel 4 also want to offer. It would be hard to raise investment capital for such a risky venture, remembering the failure of the Betamax video system once VHS gained market dominance.

Terrestrial broadcasters - BBC and ITV channels 1-5 - have no choice but to compete in this new digital world or they will risk eventual obliteration. But, unless immediate action is taken, the only way BBC and ITV will be able to enter it is on bended knee to Murdoch, at his mercy. He will control how much space and on what channels the terrestrials can enter his digital box. BBC1 could be on channel 322 if he chooses.

Most important of all, he can fix the price he charges ITV or the BBC. Oftel is there to regulate fair trading, as laid down by an EU directive, but what "fair" means is exceedingly flexible. It will take more than the wits of Oftel to detect exactly how Murdoch has accounted the costs of his operations and how much he has loaded onto the declared cost of running the system.

There is still a month or two in which to stop this. But it requires public outcry and the shaming of our politicians who are all contaminated by what they have done so far. Fear of Murdoch's power to sway the voters in the run-up to the election through the pages of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World has rendered both parties silently acquiescent. Murdoch is a monster created entirely by the Baron Frankensteins of the main political parties. Pusillanimous and self-interested, they have allowed him monopolistic control of a colossal slice of our media to the serious detriment of democracy and the quality of journalism. Now they are about to hand him the biggest prize of all. His acquisition of the newspapers has made sure he can silence all opposition as he snatches these ultimate crown jewels.

How can he be stopped? Murdoch owns the patent on the technology to his own digital system. He should be forced to franchise out that technology at a reasonable rate, so that other manufacturers, independent of Sky, can make a single box to act as gateway to all services, just as one TV set receives all terrestrial channels. There is no doubt that consumers would want one box that will offer every service. This is fair trading. Never has the principle of preventing unfair monopoly been clearer.

But Murdoch is just about to sign contracts with manufacturers of his box. As soon as his ink is on the paper, there will be no going back. The manufacturers will hurry ahead to make his boxes and the game will be over.

None of this has happened by accident. When the Broadcasting Bill was going through Parliament, Labour members on the standing committee agreed to prevent Murdoch getting total control. But when it came to the floor of the House, mysteriously this opposition had evaporated. They may make excuses about other slightly different amendments they preferred etc etc. But the harsh truth is that both parties let the bill pass without denying Murdoch his monopoly.

They will all murmur now that this is better dealt with in technical regulations laid down by the Department of Trade and Industry. Both parties nodded sagely and agreed this course of inaction. The DTI is consulting fully and widely. So fully and widely that, having promised its report by September, it has decided to consult again, produce another draft, consult on that too, and, if the timetable does not conveniently slip again, it may get into the Commons by November. But then it will be 40 days before it takes effect - by which time it will be academic. Murdoch will have signed his contracts and it will be too late.

No one party, no one politician will be to blame. Conveniently they will all claim clean hands - or equally dirty ones. By the time the election is over, the future of broadcasting will have been in effect cast in concrete, so even if Labour were to win and to decide (unlikely) to challenge the Murdoch monopoly, it will be far too late.