Leading Article : Tomorrow the world?

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Nothing seems to stop Rupert Murdoch. The more money he makes, the more he can buy. The more he buys, the more money he can make. His television interests now girdle the globe, from Sky to Star to Fox; he is a movie mogul, a publisher and, of longer standing, the proprietor of important newspapers in many countries. This is an age when politicians seem not to be in control; the British Prime Minister is constantly buffeted by events and opinion polls and even presidents of the United States are unable to dominate and manipulate as they did during the Cold War. These people do not seem equal to the times. Mr Murdoch, by contrast, appears to be master of the times. There are only a few in his league - Bill Gates of Microsoft is one - and they have power and influence, or potential power and influence, of a kind we have not seen before.

From such thoughts, it may be surprising to turn to the world of rugby union, and yet events there provide a striking illustration of this power at work. The Five Nations Championship is on the brink of collapse because of a disagreement between participating countries over how to deal with Sky and its millions. The plot may be summarised as follows: Mr Murdoch wanted to woo the tournament from the BBC but succeeded only in capturing the English union, thanks to a remarkable offer of pounds 87.5m over five years. The other unions have responded by throwing England out of the group, but their position is not strong. At best they will struggle to survive without English participation and at worst they face a haemorrhage of players and clubs towards some new Sky organisation. The English union, meanwhile, is in danger of fragmenting. In the end, Mr Murdoch probably cannot lose and the premier rugby union competition in the northern hemisphere will end up on his channels in some form. Since he already owns the leading southern hemisphere competition, he only need capture the Rugby World Cup and the whole sport will be his.

What is most alarming about this is not that a popular sporting event should move from BBC to Sky, although many will regret that. It is that nothing can stop Mr Murdoch, because he has so much money and he has no real rival. Rugby league has already sold its soul to him, allowing him, for example, to switch the whole sport from winter to summer. Association football, too, is now a Sky product. What next? Is it fanciful to imagine great swathes of the arts and entertainment industry being bought up? Sky, after all, will have so many channels it will be able to serve quite small audiences, and arts organisations are not known for their ability to resist large sums of money. Imagine the Sky Edinburgh Festival, or Coronation Street appearing first on Sky, or the National Lottery draw on Sky, or the Sky Proms. Since, as the rugby union farrago suggests, Mr Murdoch can have his way by subversion where seduction fails, there seems little we can do.

The consequence of this relentless advance is that his ability to influence our lives by determining what information we receive is becoming too great. Mr Murdoch is too powerful already, and his growing wealth will only add to his domination. Only the feeblest efforts have been made to draw a line, and we need to try harder. But we should recognise that regulation may not be enough and we should protect ourselves by strengthening the assets that we have. Foremost of these is the BBC. Just over a week ago John Birt, the BBC director-general, announced that he would like to see an increase in the licence fee, largely to help fund a costly switch to digital transmission. The fee has not risen in real terms since 1985 and stands at pounds 89.50; the corporation wants to move swiftly towards pounds 100. This request was frostily received in the political world, probably because, so close to an election, the prospect of increasing what is in effect a tax is unappealing. That the appeal should have come from Mr Birt, who does not enjoy much public trust, can hardly have helped. Yet it would be short-sighted to reject it. An increase in the licence fee of this order would not enable the BBC to outbid Sky in the big auctions, but it would help preserve a credible, quality, British presence in the broadcasting world which is not owned by Mr Murdoch and which answers to other masters than the market. That is something we need.