Rupert Murdoch's controversial buyout of BSkyB has been delayed after the Government received some 40,000 responses to a consultation process on planned purchase.
The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said yesterday that the process had "taken longer than expected" and the scale of the public response indicates the widespread concern over the possible impact of the deal.
In March, Mr Hunt said that the offer by Mr Murdoch's News Corp organisation to hive off the rolling news channel Sky News had met his concerns that the deal might damage media plurality in the UK. News Corp, which is seeking control of the 61 per cent of BSkyB that it does not already own, has offered to allow Sky News to be run as a separate company under an independent chairman.
News Corp first bid for complete ownership of BSkyB in June 2010. That offer of 675p a share was rejected by BSkyB directors. Mr Murdoch has since upped his bid to 700p a share but some shareholders have suggested he should pay as much as 950p. Further delays will not strengthen News Corp's hand.
Speaking at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport yesterday, Mr Hunt said the number of submissions could have been driven up by organised petitions. "We are looking at them all and taking them very seriously," he added.
He said that the amount of work involved meant that he could not put a timeframe on his final decision on the deal. "I have been clear from the start that we are going to go through this process totally thoroughly and totally impartially and I haven't given Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading an artificial deadline. We have had a very large number of responses to the public consultation and we are going through those responses," he said.
The Culture Secretary revealed that there would be a further consultation if he felt he needed to make adjustments to the undertakings he had made when provisionally clearing the deal in March. "If we conclude that they need to be adjusted then there would be a further consultation period. I would like to conclude it as early as possible but the most important thing is to get it absolutely right. My team, the OFT and Ofcom are making progress as fast as they can but I am not going to give them an artificial deadline."
He acknowledged that the circumstances under which Sky News would operate after a buyout was "at the heart" of much of what was now being looked at. "One of the things I said when I made that announcement was that we would want to flesh out the details of the carriage agreement and the brand licensing agreement under which Sky would carry the output of the new hived off Sky News," he said, adding that such factors "directly impact on the financial sustainability" of the hived-off enterprise. "Those are big and complex agreements and we want to make sure that we get those absolutely right."
A News Corp spokesman said: "We would not comment except to say we continue to co-operate fully with the regulatory process."
Oaten to sue 'News of the World' over alleged hacking
Mark Oaten, the former Liberal Democrat MP whose sex life was was exposed in 2006, is the latest public figure reported to have launched a legal battle against the News of the World over phone hacking allegations.
His decision to sue came a day after Ulrika Jonsson announced she is to sue the tabloid over alleged phone hacking.
Five years ago his rise through his party's ranks was abruptly halted when the News of the World revealed that he had cheated on his wife, Belinda, with a rent boy. He blamed his behaviour on hair loss and a mid-life crisis. Mr Oaten was forced to resign as his party's home affairs spokesman in the wake of the coverage. Publication of the story came shortly after he withdrew from a race for the party leadership.
He stood down from his Winchester constituency, which he had held for more than a decade, before the 2010 general election and his seat fell to the Tories. Since leaving Parliament he has been criticised by animal rights groups for taking a job as chief executive of the International Fur Trade Federation.