Outlook: Back pass to OFT is Sky's best chance

THEY THINK it's all over. Not at BSkyB they don't. Yesterday brought a fresh round of fevered speculation on what's going to happen to Sky's bid for Manchester United. On Wednesday, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in an as yet unpublished report had given the Trade and Industry Secretary little option but to block the bid by finding it to be against the public interest, and further, that the MMC was concerned about the enforceability of any conditions that might address those public interest concerns.

Nonesense, said the Daily Mail yesterday. In fact the deal will be cleared and the Telegraph's story was "inaccurate". Without seeing the report, there is little point in attempting to predict which of these opposing versions is the correct one. Both of them seem to be guess work, at least in part. Strangely, however, they could both be true.

For reasons that now lie buried in the mists of time, the legislation forces the Secretary of State to go along with the MMC's findings if it recommends clearence, but also allows him to go against the MMC's findings if it recommends the bid be blocked. In other words, he could clear the deal whatever the MMC's conclusions.

For Rupert Murdoch at BSkyB, it is pay back time. Having lent the Blair Government so much support during the general election, Mr Murdoch wants his pound of flesh.

However, even he would probably concede that if the MMC has recommended an outright block, with no possibility of conditional clearence, then it would be politically extremely difficult for Stephen Byers, the Trade Secretary, to go against those findings. Mr Blair may indeed be beholden to Mr Murdoch, but to be exposed as such - as any such decision would imply - would be profoundly damaging, not just to Mr Blair, but quite possibly to Mr Murdoch too.

So Sky's best chance, assuming outright clearence has not been recommended, is a conditional report. That would allow Mr Byers to kick the whole thing back to the Office of Fair Trading, which would be instructed to negotatiate suitable undertakings. Certainly, if there is any way in which the Government can reasonably allow the deal to proceed, then Mr Murdoch would expect it to be taken. If Mr Byers and his master, Tony Blair, refuse, then they will be punished through the Murdoch press and through his TV channels.

As can readily be seen, Mr Byers finds himself in a right old pickle. He's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. The serious point about all this is that it highlights the dangers of allowing undue concentration of media ownership. That concentration forces political parties to curry favour with the likes of Mr Murdoch, which in turn can bring about a semi corrupt distortion in public policy at a later date.

As it happens, however, there are undertakings that Sky could offer which would probably address the most obvious concerns. If Manchester United were to stand aside not only from all discussions on the sale of Premiership broadcast rights, but also the vote on such sales, then it is hard to see how Sky could influence the outcome of these matters any more than it does already.

It would be no surprise to discover that this is indeed what Sky has offered, and that the MMC has accepted that this might provide a route to clearence.

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