Church calls on Ofcom to block Sky takeover

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The Independent Online

News Corporation's bid for BSkyB may be backed by Rupert Murdoch, but the Australian tycoon could have met his match after a higher power waded into the row.

In a move that surprised many involved, the Church of England called for regulators to block the controversial bid, over fears the merged group would be too dominant in the UK.

The Church's view emerged in a submission to the regulator, which is consulting over whether News Corp taking its 39.1 per cent stake in Sky to full control would damage the range of different voices and opinions in the British media industry.

Sky declined to comment on the Church's comments, while News Corporation said media plurality had increased in the UK with the growth of multi-channel TV and the internet. A spokeswoman added that these had also led to "an expansion in the number of religious views in the media".

News Corp approached Sky's independent directors with a 700p per share bid in June, valuing the company at £12bn. The bid was rebuffed but in an unorthodox move the directors added they would be happy with anything above 800p per share.

The bid, which went quiet over the summer, reignited earlier this month when News Corp officially lodged its intention to bid with the European Commission. This set the regulatory clock ticking in Brussels – which will decide whether the deal has any competition issues – and with the UK Government.

Just days later, the Business Secretary Vince Cable passed the case to media watchdog Ofcom to investigate the impact to the UK. The Right Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester and the Church's media spokesman, yesterday welcomed Mr Cable's decision. He said: "This inquiry is welcome and timely because the vitality and plurality of the media, especially in combination with a strong public service remit, is essential to the maintenance of a well informed democracy."

The Bishop also pointed to comments by Lord Puttnam, which said the "overriding interest of the citizen" deman-ded there should be no reduction in the range of views that can hold government and others to account. A spokesman for the Church said the organisation had a long history of taking an interest in broadcasting..

Dr McCulloch said a successful merger "would dominate both the television and newspaper landscape" as it brings together Sky, which recently passed 10 million customers, with The Times and The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World.

The Church underlined recent concerns that a deal could see Sky News subject to "subtle editorial influence, not least in the process of selecting which news items are to be covered and which left out".

He added that if the bid was allowed "the public have a right to expect, at the very minimum, an assurance that the independence and editorial integ-rity of Sky News will be preserved".

The deadline for submissions to Ofcom closed on Friday. It is understood that, among the responses, the involvement of the Church was the most surprising. The regulator will pass its report to the Business Secretary at the end of the year, who will decide whether to step in.