Denise Kingsmill to chair Vivendi inquiry

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THE APPOINTMENT of Denise Kingsmill to chair a Competition Commission investigation into the acquisition by France's Vivendi of a 25 per cent interest in BSkyB coincided last night with fresh criticism of Stephen Byers, the Trade Secretary, for his handling of the referral.

"I would be very concerned if it was being done for political purposes," said Angela Browning, Conservative MP and opposition spokeswoman for trade. She added that Mr Byers, who has pledged to remove political considerations from DTI competition rulings, was being monitored closely by the Opposition in areas where he has taken a strong personal interest.

The Conservative MP also urged Mr Byers to move rapidly in his simultaneous inquiry into the competition issues involved in cable group NTL's pounds 8.5bn takeover of the residential cable business of Cable & Wireless. Earlier, John Bridgeman approved the merger, citing its benefits to consumers from creating increased competition in the pay-TV market.

"When you look at the significance of cable industry technology it's very important that it be allowed to develop," Ms Browning said. "It needs to be able to compete and develop its technology. I would hope there is justification for the inquiry and it will be concluded rapidly," she added.

Mrs Kingsmill, who is also chairing an inquiry into the automobile industry, will be joined by other commissioners who are to be appointed shortly. Mr Byers is to receive the report by 25 February.

Industry watchers have noted that Mr Murdoch, owner of a 40 per cent interest in BSkyB, benefits substantially from both inquiries. In June, the media mogul moved to become chairman of BSkyB for the first time since engineering its creation in the early 1990s.

Vivendi's boss, Jean Marie Messier, has earned a reputation for being a determined, if ruthless, corporate predator. Over the summer, Mr Messier and Mr Murdoch aborted talks about merging BSkyB with Canal Plus, the French pay-TV operator controlled by Vivendi.