Defeat for Murdoch, victory for press freedom

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY, A huge blow was struck for the freedom and diversity of the British press. The Office of Fair Trading ruled that Rupert Murdoch, who controls The Times, pursued a policy of price cutting in a deliberate attempt to harm his competitors, and he has been forced to give assurances that he will not repeat this strategy.

The decision vindicates the long campaign led by The Independent against Mr Murdoch's misuse of financial muscle to distort the broadsheet newspaper market. John Bridgeman, the Director General of Fair Trading, declared the policy of selling The Times for 10p on Mondays for 18 months was anti- competitive: in other words, it was an attempt to manipulate the market against the public interest.

But the decision does not merely represent a commercial victory for Mr Murdoch's rivals: it will help to protect what Mr Bridgeman called "one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the world". Britain needs a diverse and competitive press; it is the underpinning of a vibrant democracy.

It is only necessary to recall the background to the founding of The Independent to realise why yesterday's ruling matters to this newspaper, above all. In 1986, enough newspaper readers and journalists were so alarmed by Mr Murdoch's dominance of the British press that a need was identified for an independent voice. That need has not diminished; if anything, in this age of digital and satellite communications, it has grown.

It is easy to imagine how serious debate would have been skewed if The Times's strategy had succeeded in fatally damaging any of its rivals. Would the reporting of Mr Murdoch's bid for Manchester United been fairer? We think not. Would there be a more balanced discussion about the single European currency, which runs contrary to Mr Murdoch's business interests? And who would be putting the case against national sports events moving to Murdoch-owned satellite stations?

Our only regret is that it has taken so long for the OFT to act. It is now three years since Mr Murdoch started his predatory price cuts. Indeed, a complaint made at the start was rejected by Mr Bridgeman's predecessor, Sir Bryan Carsberg, "because at that stage it appeared that the price cuts would not be sustained for a long period". And when a ruling is finally made 16 months after the anti-competitive behaviour ended in January 1998, words such as bolts, horses and stable doors come to mind.

In America, the response of the authorities would have been swifter and more punitive. A company found guilty of such practices there would have been fined by the Department of Justice and required to pay compensation to its competitors. In Britain, the OFT's ruling only opens the way for a possible legal action against News International, which owns Times Newspapers Holdings, for damages.

Nevertheless, this ruling marks a significant step forward to a more aggressive stance by the OFT, a welcome second part of a two-step with the Competition Commission, the former Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which ruled so emphatically against Mr Murdoch's attempt to gain a stranglehold on English football. Together, the two decisions put a significant brake on Mr Murdoch's ambitions to dominate the British media.

Despite Mr Murdoch's record of breaking undertakings given to regulators, the "assurances" this time are backed up by an unprecedented requirement on News International to submit internal documents to the OFT if it reduces the price of The Times again as part of a strategy.

Two facts remain from the long story of Mr Murdoch's attempt to reduce the number of British newspapers. One is that his predatory pricing did not succeed. Although he managed to buy market share for The Times, he did not kill off The Independent. We believe we are now stronger than we have been for many years. The other is that henceforth, competition in the newspaper industry will above all be for the sharpest reporting, the best writing and the most fearless commentary, rather than simply for the lowest price.

That is a battle all newspapers should be prepared to fight with honour.

OFT ruling, page 2