Hunt ready to clear Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB

The year-long saga of Murdoch’s attempt to get control of BSkyB is likely come to an end this month following the government’s announcement on 30 June that it was ready to give the green light to News Corporation’s take-over of BSkyB. Jeremy Hunt also announced that he was allowing one week for objections to be raised, but within hours of the announcement demonstrators (including me) were outside the DCMS Offices off London’s Trafalgar Square, just yards away from the great London demo against cuts to services and pensions and MP’s were demanding that he come to the Commons to explain the proposed deal.

At 11.36 am Hunt made an emergency statement, which was greeted with a barrage of criticism from Labour MPs who accused him of being under the sway of Murdoch. Labour MP Tom Watson, who had forced Hunt to make his statement said; “…The Secretary of State has granted the acquisition to an organisation that is currently the subject of three separate police inquiries, and an organisation that a parliamentary Select Committee found guilty of “collective amnesia” of criminality at one of its newspapers. There is emerging evidence that News International conspired with convicted criminals to pervert the course of justice by hacking the phones of serving police officers and detectives, their families and the families of the victims of serious crime. At least one senior executive even collaborated with at least one career criminal while he was serving time in prison. And, most appallingly of all, while the nation grieved, the criminals who were contracted to News International illicitly targeted a parent of the children who were murdered by Ian Huntley in Soham.”

Referring to the so called guarantees of independence that Hunt is consulting on, Professor Stephen Barnett told the Financial Times on 1 July that; “On the two previous occasions when similar boards have been established to safeguard editorial independence within News Corp, the structure has failed: the Times and Sunday Times and the Wall Street Journal.” These are references to editorial independence guarantees Murdoch gave to the UK government in 1981 when he bought the Times titles. He subsequently fired its well respected editor Harold Evans (now knighted).  Evans wrote an account of this period in his book entitled Good Times, Bad Times (1984). In the case of the Wall Street Journal, Adrian Hamilton writing in The Independent on 1 July said that in the case of the Wall Street Journal and its committee appointed to maintain its editorial independence (a condition of the takeover) Murdoch did not exercise interference by issuing memos, ‘…he exercised control by appointing people who will second-guess his will and his prejudices’. He went on; ‘…It’s not that Murdoch particular seeks to break them (the guarantees). It’s just that he sees no point in them at all, regarding them as ridiculous leaves by which government cover their nakedness before their electorates’.

Of course there could be a legal challenge in the form of a judicial review. A number of news media and telecoms organisations are angry that the bid was not referred to the Competition Commission. Then there is the question of actually buying the shares. News Corporation which own just over 39 per cent of BSkyB intend to offer 700p per share. According to the Financial Times (1 July) the BSkyB’s independent directors want at least 100p a share more, which is not surprising as shares at the time of writing were just over 848p! But in the past raising money has never really been a problem for the Murdochs.

So what now? The takeover is likely to go through, but what was first thought to be a ‘done deal’ some 12 months ago has run into heavy opposition not just from the non-Murdoch media and telecoms organisations, but from the public. On-line campaigners 38 Degrees and Avaaz mobilised thousands of people to protest against the takeover, In October last year, 38 Degrees handed in a 19,000-signatory letter to the Vince Cable the Business Secretary opposing the takeover. Cable, as you will recall, subsequently lost his powers over media mergers following his anti-Murdoch outburst to two undercover journalists. Later Avaaz, with others, amassed 60,000 signatures against the takeover, and an ICM opinion poll of 2,006 people found that 63 per cent wanted an independent investigation into the deal and 84 per cent said that no single organisation should be allowed to control too much of the media. The public does care about the media, which is why we need to step up campaigning against the existing media ownership laws and demand tougher controls. A new communications bill is being drawn up by the Government and now is the time to start agitating for change. In addition Government moves to deregulate ownership rules in local and regional media we have to be fought. More than 100 local newspapers in the UK have closed in the current recession. Like Murdoch, the government, cannot be trusted with its market driven media policies. And if you want to know how it could all end up, just look at Italy!

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