David Prosser: Another opportunity to explain why the Sky deal threatens plurality
Outlook: The task is to persuade the Competition Commission to take a different view onplurality – that case has not yet been made as strongly as necessary
Tuesday 12 July 2011
Opponents of News Corp's bid for full control of BSkyB who think the referral of the deal yesterday to the Competition Commission is a potential game-winner ought not to be so complacent. The referral does mean the Murdochs will have to wait even longer to get their paws on Sky, but the delay notwithstanding, it is far from clear the referral adds to the likelihood of the deal being blocked.
That's because the Competition Commission's task will be, like Ofcom before it, to ponder the threat posed by this deal to media plurality. News Corp said yesterday it believed it would pass such a test with flying colours. No wonder it is confident – Ofcom has effectively cleared the deal once already on the plurality test and News Corp now operates fewer newspapers than before (only by one, but the biggest).
Moreover, for all the outrage of the allegations against News Corp newspapers, it is difficult to make the case that they are material to the plurality debate. They matter much more, of course, to the question of whether News Corp is a "fit and proper owner" of Sky, but the standard of proof on that test is remarkably high.
Nor should opponents of the deal get hung up once again on the issue of Sky News. Indeed, News Corp's big success, until the past week, has been to persuade people that the most serious matter at stake here is the editorial independence of that channel. That was always a red herring – not least because the UK broadcasting regulations would prevent a "Fox-ification" of Sky News – which served to distract attention from bigger concerns.
The task, then, is to persuade the Competition Commission to take a different view on plurality. That case has not been made as strongly as necessary, at least not since details of the News Corp bid first emerged, despite it representing the best possible hope of a regulatory intervention.
It is worth reminding people that News Corp is able to bid for Sky only because our outdated broadcasting laws do not cover pay TV. A bid for ITV, by contrast, would contravene regulation framed before the advent of pay TV that prohibits this sort of cross-media ownership. Yet on revenues at least, Sky is now considerably bigger than ITV.
What would News Corp do with the hugely cash generative business that Sky has become? It would be peculiar if it did not look at bundling, for example – selling online subscriptions to its newspapers on the back of its television, telephone and broadband deals. That would give it a huge edge over newspaper-only rivals. Newsroom integration is also possible, as would be a string of other initiatives made possible by Sky's wealth and its reach.
This is Rupert Murdoch's modus operandi. His newspaper empire was built on aggressive price cutting and cross-subsidies between publications. That the takeover of Sky would offer new opportunities for such strategies certainly represents a threat to media plurality – this is the case that must be made to the Competition Commission.
So are the banks lending or not?
There may be more competition these days for the title of Public Enemy Number One, but the banks aren't off the hook just yet. When independent research, published yesterday, revealed that "a significant minority" of small businesses applying for loans were turned down, the response was predictable – a flurry of complaints about banks reneging on their commitments to the SME sector.
The problem is that those complaints are difficult to substantiate. The research, conducted by BDRC Continental, found that a third of small businesses seeking a loan in recent months were turned down, while one in six had an overdraft application rejected.
Does that sound as if SMEs are getting a raw deal? Hard to say. For one thing, this is the first time such research has been conducted – so we can't work out how this compares with the availability of credit before the financial crisis. Second, we have no sight of the rejected applicants' quality – their requests for credit may have been utterly unrealistic. And third, the sample was small – BDRC spoke to 5,000 SMEs, but only 8 per cent of them had applied for credit recently.
Nor is it necessarily problematic that BDRC says it is the smallest businesses that are most likely to be missing out on credit, particularly those with poorer credit ratings and shorter-term relationships with their banks. Frankly, if the banks were more likely to say yes to these businesses than to more established SMEs, one would really be worried.
This is not to say all banks are doing everything they should to support SMEs – just that this research doesn't mean a great deal without some context. The exercise is to be repeated quarterly, so we should, in time, begin to see some trends emerging on the availability of credit. But until then, it's not possible to conclude whether or not banks are behaving fairly.
What one can say, however, is that it is unreasonable to expect the banks to say yes to every application for a loan or overdraft, whatever the political pressure upon them to support SMEs. With an economic recovery that is slowing, many businesses are just now becoming less rather than more creditworthy. Even if we weren't currently asking banks to bear down on risk, we would expect them to be more circumspect about credit, given the prevailing economic conditions.
One other theme emerges from BDRC's research: that some SMEs are reluctant to apply for credit they need to expand because they fear rejection. That is a problem the banks must work hard to address, since it suggests that at least some stronger businesses are not able to grow as quickly as they would like, potentially depriving the economy of new jobs.
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