Leading article: Sky should be limited for Murdoch

Sunday 30 January 2011 01:00

These have been a fraught few days in the office for Rupert Murdoch, who visited the London branch of his media empire last week. His television company, Sky, was humiliated by the sexist goonishness of Andy Gray and Richard Keys, the presenters of its Premiership football, its biggest generator of cash. Mr Gray was sacked on Tuesday and Mr Keys followed voluntarily on Wednesday after their off-air derogatory remarks about a female match official were leaked – although it was evidence of sexual harassment in the Sky office that emerged subsequently which prompted Mr Gray's dismissal.

This coincided awkwardly with a crisis in the long-running embarrassment at Mr Murdoch's biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World. After the departure of Andy Coulson, the newspaper's former editor, from 10 Downing Street as the Prime Minister's head of communications, it must have been hoped, by Mr Murdoch and David Cameron, that the story would start to go away. Indeed, one of the purposes of Mr Murdoch's visit seems to have been to deliver in person the message that he wants the stables cleaned out properly this time – as opposed to the cosmetic exercises carried out earlier.

Mr Murdoch's intentions may be sincere, but they are not unrelated to the third story concerning his interests to have occupied the rest of the British media last week. He wants to buy out the outside shareholders in Sky. That means that he has to persuade the regulators that he and his son James take seriously the concerns about media pluralism, or free and fair competition.

Mr Murdoch senior has been here before. He made promises of editorial independence when he took over The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981, which were not honoured. Hence the scepticism about the undertakings that he is prepared to offer in order to secure total ownership of Sky.

That is why the refusal of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World to die down is damaging to him. While not directly relevant to competition issues, his failure to enforce standards of journalistic integrity weakens promises about how his executives will behave in future.

The departure of Mr Coulson may have been part of an attempt agreed between Mr Cameron and the Government to try to close down the story, but the reopening of the police investigation puts more pressure on Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture. Mr Hunt has to decide whether to refer the Sky takeover to the Competition Commission, a decision removed from Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, after he revealed his prejudice against Mr Murdoch to undercover Daily Telegraph reporters.

One response to Mr Murdoch's bid for Sky has been to wonder what the fuss is about. After all, Mr Murdoch already controls Sky by virtue of his 39 per cent shareholding. What practical difference would it make for him to own Sky outright? The technical answer is that he would not have to worry about the legally protected interests of other shareholders, which would allow him to cross-subsidise between his wholly owned companies.

But all that anyone really needs to know is that Mr Murdoch and his son are desperate for the takeover to go ahead. They think that it is in their commercial interest, and there is no guarantee – indeed, if anything the opposite – that such an interest is in the national interest.

Last week Mr Hunt said he "intends to refer" the bid to the Competition Commission, but gave Mr Murdoch unspecified further time to satisfy Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, and the Office of Fair Trading. Possibly because it was unexpected, Mr Hunt's decision has been commended as "astute", although it is hard to see why. None of the assurances that Mr Murdoch might give – that Sky News would be independent, for instance – could be relied on.

The big question, therefore, is whether four newspapers plus such a large presence in non-public-service broadcasting is so dominant that it inhibits the vigour and pluralism of our free media. The Independent on Sunday has little faith in the safeguards offered by Mr Murdoch, and believes that giving him more power over Sky's editorial direction – and Sky News in particular – crosses a line that must be held in the public interest.

But it is the Competition Commission that should decide, and there is no purpose served by further delay.

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