Ian Burrell: News Corp serves up a political hot potato

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The Independent Online

For the new Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the timing could have been better. During the election campaign he fought off Labour-fuelled rumours that the Tories had cut a secret deal with Rupert Murdoch to neuter the BBC and the media watchdog Ofcom, in return for the political support of his newspapers.

During his first days in post, Hunt has sought to win friends by pledging support to the creative communities, while expressing his admiration for the "great national institution" that is the BBC, and even praising Ofcom's chief executive Ed Richards. Then, with the Culture Secretary having had his feet under the desk for barely a month, Rupert makes his grab for the rest of BSkyB.

To Murdoch conspiracy theorists the explanation is obvious. Online commentators made reference to George Orwell's 1984. In reality, BSkyB is set to cash in on its technological and strategic investments of recent years and it makes sense to turn the business into an entirely owned division of News Corporation.

Assuming that News Corp, which is sitting on vast cash reserves, ups its offer sufficiently to acquire the remaining 61 per cent of shares, it will fall to the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to give regulatory approval. But yesterday Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman, was very relaxed about the proposed takeover. "I think people need to look at this as a commercial decision," he said. "I see it as that, rather than it being a competition threat and Murdoch taking over the world, which is how some people are portraying it."

The matter will need to go before the European regulators but they are unlikely to act when the takeover does not threaten the existence of rival broadcasters.

Still, while many assume that BSkyB is already wholly owned by News Corp, a full takeover could lead to subtle changes in the output. Expect even closer ties between the satellite broadcaster and other Murdoch brands. Journalists from News International titles are likely to become increasingly prominent, particularly as the imminent introduction of a paywall on the websites of The Times and The Sunday Times heightens the value of cross-promotion in maintaining the profile of the brands.

The rolling news channel Sky News, which has previously drawn attention to News Corp's minority shareholding in order to distinguish itself from Murdoch's Fox News, may find it harder as a wholly owned division to remain aloof from its stable mates.

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