Donald Trelford: The last seduction of Rupert Murdoch?

Media Studies: There are serious doubts as to whether Sky News will be commercially viable on its own

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:16

Never have I read such exasperated editorials on both left and right – with The Guardian and The Daily Mail singing from the same hymn sheet for once – as those lamenting the Culture Secretary's flagged-up decision to allow Rupert Murdoch's News Corp to buy the part of BSkyB that it doesn't own already. Without raking over all the arguments, or even raising the issue of phone hacking, let me highlight three factors which puzzle me.

The first is why Jeremy Hunt didn't take the easy option, recommended by Ofcom (and favoured by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable) of referring the matter to the Competition Commission. Convergence and the digital revolution have muddied the whole competitive playing field in ways that could destroy traditional media and/or bring them new commercial opportunities. Some expert and independent guidance through this media morass would surely be helpful to everyone involved. This would have kept politics out of it. By taking the decision himself, Hunt makes it look as though yet another government is scared to offend Murdoch because of the power that his papers wield – or are said to wield – at general elections.

My second question has been widely voiced, but not really answered: can Murdoch be trusted to keep any promises he makes? The record, from The Times in 1982 to The Wall Street Journal in 2007, yells out a resounding No. He has strewn assurances around the world like confetti. Yet Hunt, who would have been a schoolboy at Charterhouse when Murdoch sacked Harold Evans as editor in breach of his undertakings to the Thatcher government, is relying on News Corp's undertakings over the future of Sky News.

People I know in television do not believe that anyone will buy into Sky News while Murdoch still owns 39 per cent. There are also serious doubts as to whether the channel will be commercially viable on its own. If not, Murdoch will eventually have to move in to save it, thereby defeating the whole purpose of Hunt's so-called protective measures. From a political perspective, this may not matter much – as long as it happens after the next election.

My final concern is the narrow definition of "plurality" being used. It seems to be irrelevant that Murdoch controls nearly 40 per cent of the country's national newspapers. Even in Italy there are tougher rules about cross-media ownership. The debate should be about reducing Murdoch's grip, not extending it. This is not to demonise Murdoch, as many do, nor to argue that editorial quality deteriorates under his ownership (to my mind, the WSJ is better), nor that proprietors should never express editorial views. It is about one man bamboozling governments into giving him more power over their media than is healthy in a democracy.

Officially, the decision on BSkyB will not be announced until the end of the consultation period on Friday. The reality is that the decision has already been taken to allow Murdoch to expand his media empire in Britain. At best this decision is naïve, at worst cowardly. The Australian/American owes much of his success around the world to trading political favours for commercial concessions. As Lord Donoughue writes in the British Journalism Review: "Murdoch is like the serial philanderer who convinces each girl in turn that she is the one who will change him to behave decently. Then she lies down. And the trick always works." Sadly, it seems to have worked again.

Gamble of ditching overseas editions

When I saw that The Guardian and The Observer were dropping their international editions as a cost-saving measure, my first thought was: poor Ian! My friend can be found every morning in the square in Pollenca, Majorca, sipping a coffee, his dog resting under the table, getting his daily fix from The Guardian. Reading the paper online will never be quite the same.

In the past decade most British papers have increased their overseas sales by using satellite printing plants all over Europe. Most papers print in Madrid, some in Majorca itself. The favourites among the expatriate community are, unsurprisingly, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times. The risk in abandoning overseas sales is that The Guardian and Observer will not be able to follow their readers on holiday, forcing them to try an alternative – and that can be dangerous if they stick with the new paper when they return home.

An editor with the common touch

Readers and writers of sports pages owe more than they know to David Welch, the former sports editor of The Daily Telegraph, who died last week aged 63. He introduced the first daily broadsheet sports section in a British newspaper and, by persuading his bosses to invest massively in sports coverage, he led the way for others to follow. His argument – that sport was a sure-fire circulation winner – is now taken for granted.

He also believed that sport was a universal language and that journalists were not the only people who could be fluent in it. He hired people from all walks of life where he thought they could bring fresh insights. Michael Parkinson was a big success; Chris de Burgh less so. This writer has reason to be grateful to David for believing that an unemployed newspaper editor had some potential as a sports columnist, a decision that kept me congenially engaged for 15 years.

Donald Trelford was editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University

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