David Prosser: A quick and painless way to end Hunt's BSkyB dilemma
Friday 21 January 2011
Outlook Just get on with it. That's the advice Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, should be listening to as he ponders what to do with the hot potato that is News Corp's bid for full control of Sky. Mr Hunt has had Ofcom's recommendation on how the News Corp bid should be handled since New Year's Eve. The regulator is widely believed to have told him the case should be referred to the Competition Commission for a full investigation into whether the deal would threaten the plurality of the UK's media. So why, three weeks on, has that referral not come?
If the reports of the past few days are to be believed, the hold-up reflects ongoing negotiations between News Corp and Mr Hunt, with the media group supposedly offering concessions – putting Sky News into some sort of independent editorial trust, say – in order to avoid a commission inquiry.
The alternative explanation for the delay is that Mr Hunt is putting his department's lawyers through their paces so that the decision he announces is so copper-bottomed that a legal challenge from the eventual disappointed party does not have any chance of success.
Either way, this has dragged on long enough: Mr Hunt has had plenty of time to work out that accepting Ofcom's advice is his only realistic course of action.
Coming to a private deal with News Corp, whatever he might be able to agree with the Murdochs in return for clearing the Sky takeover, is not a viable option. Not for Mr Hunt, whose credibility would be fatally undermined by accusations, however accurate, that he is in the pocket of News Corp. And not for News Corp, which would not necessarily avoid the delay a Competition Commission inquiry would bring – the company is said to be anxious it will have to pay more for Sky in six months' time than today – because a legal action from opponents of the deal would be inevitable.
Let's not be distracted by the Sky News red herring. News Corp is going to struggle to find a buyer for a business that loses tens of millions of pounds each year. And while moving it into an independent trust might appease those who fear the company wants to create a British Fox News, that isn't a matter for regulators. Even with Sky News within a trust, News Corp would be free to pursue commercial deals with it and the rest of the Sky operation, which is what really worries those who are concerned about plurality.
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