Murdoch in pounds 4bn bid to control FT

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The Independent Online
Rupert Murdoch is planning to extend his grip on the British media in a deal worth well over pounds 4bn to buy the company that controls the Financial Times, Penguin Books and Thames Television.

The audacious bid, to be mounted through his 40-per-cent-owned UK satellite broadcasting company BSkyB, is for control of the Pearson Group. It is being discussed internally at BSkyB and would add dramatically to Murdoch's already stellar collection of British media assets, which include The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World.

The move would signal a revival in Mr Murdoch's interest in Pearson - in which he built up a 20 per cent stake, since sold, in the 80s. It would also set off alarm bells in Parliament and among regulators.

BSkyB's executives, including chief executive Sam Chisholm, are convinced that regulators would be powerless to intervene because their business is majority owned by European-based companies and investors.

But critics of BSkyB expansion point out that it is staffed by senior Murdoch appointees - including Mr Chisholm and Elizabeth Murdoch, Mr Murdoch's 28-year-old daughter.

They add that control of the Financial Times would be a step too far for the press baron, whose newspapers already account for more than 30 per cent of national newspaper circulation. There would also be questions about control of a terrestrial television station, Channel 5, in which Pearson has a 24 per cent interest.

The bid preparations, which are at an early stage, are believed to have been mounted in co-operation with a US-based media company. Analysts speculated yesterday that a leading book publisher could be involved. It is understood that BSkyB would sell Pearson's theme parks and its educational publishing interests if it succeeded in its bid.

BSkyB, which is worth more than pounds 12bn, has proved to be one of Mr Murdoch's biggest successes. It nearly bankrupted him in 1990, but BSkyB survived to become the14th biggest company in Britain and the near-monopoly supplier of pay-TV programming. It has also expanded aggressively on the continent, taking a leading role in the development of digital satellite television in Germany.

Mr Chisholm is understood to be interested in expanding the company's range of British programming, and is particularly attracted by the production businesses of Pearson, which make popular programmes such as The Bill and Neighbours.

Pearson is believed to be discounting a full bid from BSkyB, suggesting that the move is an attempt to "shake out" the television assets. A new management, led by Marjorie Scardino, the first woman to become chief executive of a top 100 British company, was unveiled last week, and is expected to develop its own restructuring plan that could see the sale of its television interests.

Sky's bid, page 18