Stephen Glover: Why Sky News has an attitude problem

Media Studies: I do dislike the idea of foreign media moguls doing shady deals with would-be British prime ministers

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:46
Does Rupert Murdoch want to turn Sky News into Fox News?
Does Rupert Murdoch want to turn Sky News into Fox News?

Does Rupert Murdoch want to turn Sky News into Fox News? Fox is an unashamedly right-wing American television news channel owned by Mr Murdoch. Sky News, by contrast, is pretty even-handed, constrained as it is by Britain's television impartiality laws.

The question of Murdoch's intentions arises because he is trying to acquire the 61 per cent of Sky he does not already own. Most pundits have assumed that his chief motivation is financial: Sky is expected to make enormous profits over the next few years, and Murdoch would like to be the sole beneficiary.

But there is another theory: that he wants to make even more money by turning Sky News – a loss leader with a small audience – into a more profitable British Fox. This is what Polly Toynbee suggested in the Guardian last week. Perhaps I owe her an apology, having suggested recently that she and her ilk had ignored Mr Murdoch's manoeuvrings over Sky. Now Polly is firing on all cylinders, though some of what she wrote is bonkers – for example, her contention that "Sky's budget is already twice that of BBC television's".

The evidence that the media mogul wants to pep up Sky News runs as follows. Item one: last August, his son James delivered a speech in which he complained about the power of the regulator Ofcom and impartiality laws. Item two: in January, John Ryley, head of Sky News, said that the impartiality laws should be scrapped. He added, though we may take this with a pinch of salt, that it was "good business" for Sky News to remain impartial, his implication being that the British do not like Fox-like rants.

There is little doubt that Mr Murdoch wants to free up Sky News, though how is uncertain. The plot thickens when we throw in allegations that David Cameron had made a Faustian pact with the Murdochs. There is no evidence, of course. What we have is the Murdoch-owned Sun's desertion of New Labour and its embrace of the Tories last autumn, and its subsequent limpet-like support of anything and everything Mr Cameron does, including forming a coalition with Nick Clegg, whom the paper could previously not abide.

As long ago as last December, the then Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, alleged that the Tory leader had agreed to legislate so as to liberate Sky from the clutches of Ofcom and impartiality laws. Maybe it takes a born conspirator to spot a conspiracy. I would not be surprised if there had been a deal. The problem is that it was made without the Lib Dems in mind. And the man who must rule on Mr Murdoch's proposed acquisition of the whole of Sky is none other than Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary.

There are two issues: the takeover of Sky; and the removal of impartiality laws. Mr Cable is required to arbitrate on the former. (The European Commission also has a separate say.) The Business Secretary recently said there "would need to be a lot of evidence" for him to become involved, which may imply he doesn't want to. He could maintain that as the Murdochs already effectively control Sky, their acquisition of the remaining shares is purely academic.

Except that gaining control would enable them to move to stage two – the "Foxification" or, at any rate, transformation of Sky News into a channel with attitude. In principle, I don't regard the idea of television channels having views with the horror that Polly Toynbee does. If newspapers can, why not television? But I do dislike the idea of foreign media moguls doing shady deals with would-be British prime ministers. The removal of impartiality laws would in practice chiefly benefit Sky News since other news organisations would probably carry on as at present, and the costs of entry to newcomers are very high. How could it be seen other than a dirty deal? This is the hornet's nest in the midst of which the supposedly virtuous Vince Cable now finds himself.

I can't wait to see what BBC stars earn

Last week, I chided the BBC for exempting itself from the austerity measures affecting the public sector. So, I was pleased to hear the announcement last Wednesday by Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, that the Corporation's senior executives will take a pay cut this year and next, equivalent to the loss of a month's salary in each year. I am even happier that the BBC has listened to its critics, and agreed to publish the names and salaries of its highest paid stars, though these will be disclosed in bands rather than as exact figures.

These revelations will, I predict, create an even bigger hullabaloo. It is, for example, one thing for newspapers to repeat the leaked story that Jeremy Paxman is paid £1m a year, another to have the figure confirmed by the BBC. This will make uncomfortable reading for many "stars". It is nonsense, though, to say they will stomp off. Most have nowhere else to go.

How Piers Morgan got Lost in Showbiz

Every Friday, the Guardian runs a column called Lost in Showbiz by Marina Hyde. Written in an arch and superior tone, it provides an excuse to publish stories about celebrities one might associate with grubbier newspapers. The Times has copied the idea – less successfully, according to closer students than me.

One of the biggest showbiz stories of the past couple of weeks has been the marriage of "TV star" Piers Morgan to his long-standing girlfriend, Celia Walden. Lost in Showbiz would normally clear the decks for such an event, yet there was no mention of it, as there never is of anything involving Mr Morgan. Ms Hyde's almost obsessive omissions are deeply puzzling. Is there a Guardian reader, or other kind soul, who could explain them to me?

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