What a difference two months make. In January, Jeremy Hunt said he was "minded" to follow Ofcom's recommendation that the bid of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to take full control of BSkyB should be referred to the Competition Commission. But yesterday he gave the green light for the bid to proceed without further interference from the regulators.
What changed Mr Hunt's mind? According to him, the answer is a special undertaking made by News Corp – in response to Ofcom's concerns about the impact of the acquisition on the plurality of media ownership – to spin off its news channel as a separate company.
Mr Hunt said yesterday that the move will give Sky News "more independence" from News Corp. But this is doubtful. News Corp would retain a 39 per cent share in the new company and continue to cover the channel's losses. It might be a diluted form of ownership, but it is still ownership. Sky News will also, we are told, have an independent board of directors to guarantee integrity in its reporting.
But similar promises of editorial independence were made after Rupert Murdoch was permitted to buy The Times newspaper group in 1981. They were soon ignored. This proposal is a fig leaf; its purpose is to give the impression of a serious response to concerns about plurality, while avoiding any substantive action.
Promises of good behaviour from some media organisations might be credible. But we should remember the nature of Mr Murdoch's empire. The News of the World appears to have been at the centre of a massive and illegal phone-hacking operation. According to the Labour MP Tom Watson, speaking in the Commons yesterday, journalists employed at other Murdoch titles might have been involved in this, too. Fox News, the Murdoch-owned US channel, is a virulently right-wing broadcaster that has contributed to the disastrous polarisation of the political discourse across the Atlantic. News Corp simply does not merit the benefit of the doubt.
The proposed arrangement also ignores the primary objection to the bid: the power in respect of advertising sales that it will afford News Corp across its range of different media platforms, giving the company a market position that can only be regarded as anti-competitive. At a time when the newspaper industry in particular is experiencing unprecedented pressure on revenues, it could have a catastrophic impact on other publications. Furthermore, News Corp will be able to "bundle" online subscriptions to its newspapers in special offers when BSkyB customers renew their satellite packages – and there would also be scope for intensive cross-promotion of News Corp titles. It all adds up to an advantage for Mr Murdoch's media empire that verges on the monopolistic.
It does not require a conspiracy theorist to detect something fishy about this meeting of minds between News Corp and the Government. In opposition, Mr Hunt enthusiastically praised Mr Murdoch's entrepreneurial skills. David Cameron hired a disgraced former News Corp editor, Andy Coulson, to be his director of communications. And Mr Murdoch's newspapers all threw their weight behind the Conservatives in last year's election. Mr Hunt's agreement to allow News Corp to skip past regulatory hurdles as it accrues still greater market power looks uncomfortably like political payback.
This deal is not yet sealed. The proposals will go out to public consultation until 21 March. This is a time for all those who want to see a diverse, competitive and free-thinking media environment in Britain to make their objections heard. If the Coalition Government is sincere in its commitment to democracy, it ought to take full accountof the public reaction to yesterday's announcement.