The story is about to reach its climax. The Financial Times tells us we could hear this week that News Corporation’s bid for the remainder of BSkyB will get the green light. The deal with the OFT appears to involve Murdoch hiving off Sky News in order to allay concerns about the plurality of news provision. (Selling off the operation is less of an option since it runs at a heavy loss.)
No agreement or promise can, however, alleviate our much aired concerns about this takeover:-
- the Murdoch empire already owns far more media – and cross-media – than is healthy in a democracy.
- we have seen the corrosive results of this in the abuses, corruption, and cover-ups of the phone-hacking scandal.
- hiving off Sky News gives no guarantee that there will not be editorial influence or relaxation of the rules in the future.
- the fear that Murdoch will bundle subscriptions to his broadcasting and papers, thus undermining competition.
Another, but frequently overlooked, reason to resist the takeover is around the wider issue of plurality. Since all forms of information and communication influence opinions and political developments, rules on plurality should clearly cover more than news. Documentaries, reality programmes, dramas, comedy – all influence our values and perceptions of the world around us. Once these are monopolistically linked with corporate gain and vested interest, they become all powerful and self serving. (We’re not suggesting that BSkyB will become a shining beacon for millionaire lifestyles and the entrenched interests of its owners in contrast to poor workers in fields! It will be a bit more subtle than that.)
And then there is the impact on our cultural and creative industries, described as “devastating” by Will Hutton in today’s Observer . “I know of at least one major US television group,” he says, “which decided not to invest in the UK. It is a ‘post –mature’ market that in its view is now de facto controlled by the Murdoch family. The market is being given to him giftwrapped. “ Added to the drastic cuts to the arts currently taking place, one begins to see a pretty impoverished, imported cultural landscape.
In the same article, Hutton says that media analyst Claire Enders reluctantly believes the split with Sky News is the best that could be hoped for within the current frame-work. “This,” he argues “is a mighty condemnation of our rules. By 2015, BSkyB will account for half of UK TV revenues, spending little on UK content while controlling swaths of sports, film and archive rights.”
With this outlook, it becomes clear that, no matter how much it is to be “protected” and “cherished”, there will be major consequences for the future of the BBC as it struggles to compete with its all-singing, all-dancing, revenue-rich corporate rival. David Cameron has made no secret of the fact that he wishes to privatise just about every publicly run service. The BBC, which he recently described as the British Broadcasting Cuts Corporation, will not be privatised, so much as shrivelled. Its deflation won’t happen with a sudden bang, but the air will be gradually let out. Meanwhile, his friends at News Corporation will be up, up and away in their beautiful balloon, with views of shed loads of money, influence and mutual favours.
In summary, if this takeover goes ahead, it will be bad for democracy and much more besides. It is also cast iron evidence of the inadequacy of the current rules on media ownership. Without wishing to sound like a broken record, it’s the reason we have consistently called for the establishment of a media commission to review all the rules on ownership, competition and regulation. This seems to be the only solution.
But who will press for it? The Tories won’t want a media commission as it isn’t in their interests. The Lib Dems have been semi gagged by their coalition position. Our hope was Labour but, to our bitter disappointment, their front bench was recently told by Tom Baldwin to go easy on Murdoch, and not to make a connection between the phone-hacking scandal and BSkyB.
We understand the reluctance of Labour to upset the Murdoch apple-cart, but the time has come to speak up very loudly. Vigorously opposing the takeover and pressing for a media commission should be top priority. Not to act could be a worse option in the long run and confine Labour to many more years in opposition as the Tories and their media mogul friends have it nicely stitched up.