Sky: Will Ofcom or the CMA dare to say no to the Murdochs?

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has past the buck of 21st Century Fox's proposed takeover of Sky over to the regulators. Whether they like it or not, their decisions on it will be seen as political 

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In reality, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley didn’t have much choice but to refer 21st Century Fox’s bid to take full control of Sky to Ofcom and the Competition & Markets Authority. 

Imagine the row if she hadn't. Even her predecessor John Whittingdale, who was open about his support for Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch, wouldn't have risked waving it through. 

Kicking it over to the regulator provides the minister with cover. The fact that it’s the right decision is just gravy. 

So let’s consider what the two regulators, which will have been expecting to get this biggest of bucks passed to them, have to deal with.

In a sense, the job of the Competition & Markets Authority is the easier one. Does the bid reduce competition in a highly concentrated media market to an unacceptable degree?

The Murdochs will point to the rise of interest broadcasters such as Netflix  and Amazon, which didn’t exist the last time we went through this. 

Then there is the growing power of Facebook, which is rapidly becoming the younger generation’s favoured news portal and is increasingly used by their parents. 

They’ll also argue that their print businesses have been spun off from their broadcasting interests, and that both companies have independent shareholders, and non executive directors. 

So, no problem for the Competition regulators? Come off it. The many critics of this deal, who all but forced Ms Bradley’s hand, will start off with the fact that the 22m customer strong Sky remains Britain’s monopoly satellite broadcaster. 

They may also point to the fact that, despite the separation of the print and broadcast businesses, and all those independent shareholders and directors, what the Murdochs want, they usually get. So how will the CMA treat the issue of control? 

It has to advise on whether to bring Europe in, but whatever it does, the decision will be seen as political. Fox says there’s not an issue. Its critics say there is. The CMA has an established framework to use in making its judgement, but whichever way its advice falls, it’s going still to make people very cross. 

However, the hot the potato that has just landed in its lap courtesy of Ms Bradley? It’s an ice lollipop when compared to what Ofcom has to deal with. 

Having resolved, for the moment, the ongoing debate over the future of BT’s broadband network with a slightly messy compromise, it now has this.

Ofcom's lot is not a happy one.  If there is one top regulator who can be said to earn their inflated salary, it’s Ofcom chief Sharon White. Even Andrew Bailey’s job at the Financial Conduct Authority looks tame by comparison. 

Ms Bradley has to decide whether Fox is a fit owner for Sky in the wake of phone hacking, and the governance issues that have cropped up at the business. 

This time there is no room for the sort of compromise she managed to reach over the issue of BT, stopping short of forcing its break up, but still securing what Ofcom hopes will be meaningful change that will get Britain’s digital economy out of the slow lone. 

Either Fox is ok, or it isn’t. And does Ms White have the courage to say no to the Murdochs if she decides upon the latter? 

Regulators have been notoriously loathe to block takeovers in the past. But given that it will be seen as political whatever these two regulators do, it mightn't be the worst idea for them to put what's in the best interests of the country at the centre of their thinking.  

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