Murdoch considers free TV ads for US politicians cancer

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The Independent Online
Did he really mean it, or was it just another ploy from a man who has never been short of business cunning and is in need of powerful friends? This was the question that was puzzling critics of Rupert Murdoch yesterday after he administered his latest dose of unpopular advice to rivals in the American broadcasting industry.

The head of News Corporation told the US National Association of Broadcasters that they should provide free air time to political candidates, describing the effect of political advertising as the "worst cancer in American society". Speaking at a Las Vegas convention, he suggested that his US television network, Fox, might eventually be willing to introduce it - a move that was met by a hostile reception from competitors.

His rivals were quick to accuse him (anonymously) of making another cynical attempt to curry favour with the political establishment when his activities are under scrutiny. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is investigating whether he broke foreign ownership laws when he bought a clutch of television stations which formed the core of his Fox network.

These are not the first mutterings that Mr Murdoch is doing his best to butter up politicians. A row erupted late last year when HarperCollins, part of Murdoch's empire, offered a $4.5m (£2.8m) book deal to Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives. The offer, which Mr Gingrich decided to forego after being accused of a conflict of interest, came as the Republicans were finalising proposals to overhaul media regulations.

If the FCC finds against Mr Murdoch - who has long harboured ambitions to make Fox into a fully-fledged fourth US television network - it could decide to revoke his licences, fine him, or order him to restructure. It could also order a formal hearing into the case, tying up the media baron for months. Already, he has reportedly had to curtail his activities by freezing the $38m purchase of a television station in Wisconsin and placing two others under a trusteeship.

However, broadcasters also have other less virtuous reasons to pour cold water on Mr Murdoch's free air-time proposals. The bulk of the hundreds of millions raised before elections by American politicians is spent on television commercials. In last year's mid-term elections, the television companies banked a record $355m.

Nor has their mood been improved by controversy over whether Mr Murdoch received a big tax break in the sale of one of his stations to a group led by Quincy Jones and Tribune Broadcasting under laws that allow the seller of a television property to a minority to defer capital gains taxes.

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