In his letter about the BSkyB takeover to Jeremy Hunt last week, shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis, rightly asked several tricky questions about the proposed independence of Sky News. He also asked to be involved in Hunt’s new Communications Bill, for it to be brought forward two years to 2013 and for it to include provisions that would in future remove politicians from plurality and cross media decisions.
All good stuff but, if this is the extent of Lewis’s opposition to the takeover, we find it pretty inadequate. Here’s why:
1. While the independence of Sky News is a crucial issue, it is but one element of the problem. News Corporation owning all of BSkyB, along with its vast share of British media, with or without Sky News, has tremendous implications for plurality, as we have explained many times on this blog.
2. Without buying one extra share of BSkyB, News Corporation already owns far too much media than is healthy in any democracy. Its political power and influence over successive governments is indisputable. Labour’s efforts should be directed towards breaking up the current concentration of ownership in Britiain now. (Maybe wishful thinking, but at least make a few noises on these lines!)
3. Hunt’s intended new Communications Bill of 2015, or even 2013, will have a limited impact on plurality if News Corporation already has ownership of BSkyB. And if it’s planned to be that important, why doesn’t Lewis ask Hunt to defer a decision on any bid of this nature until after the bill is in place?
4. It is ludicrous for Lewis to persist in omitting the phone-hacking scandal from his argument. We know this is current front bench policy, but it is no longer credible. How can any responsible politician believe that a corporation that has behaved so disreputably and is currently under criminal investigation is fit to buy a comic, let alone much of our broadcasting? On this issue, it would seem that Ivan Lewis, Tom Baldwin and Ed Miliband are not only out of step with Labour’s Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and John Prescott – but also out of step with the public.
Tomorrow night, Jeremy Hunt is due to appear on BBC Question Time, alongside Caroline Flint from Labour’s front bench. If any discussion arises about the phone-hacking or BSkyB or Rupert Murdoch, Caroline must be allowed to state that no decision should be made about the takeover while the investigation is in progress.
We are less than three weeks from Hunt’s expected rubber stamp for the deal. If Labour don’t use every opportunity to fight this takeover, they will be letting down the public and themselves.
Here is the letter from Ivan Lewis to Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
30th March 2011
Newscorp acquisition of BSkyB and new Communications Act
Throughout the quasi-judicial process I have sought to ensure maximum transparency consistent with the public interest. In this context, I have a number of questions with regard to the remedy proposed by Newscorp and accepted by you subject to consultation. All of these questions relate to your proposition that the independence of Sky News is protected by the proposed remedy. It is essential there is clarity on a number of issues before people can make proper judgements about your decision.
Under the proposed remedy:
- Who will appoint the Board of Newco?
- What proportion of the Board will be independent non-executive Directors?
- Who will appoint the independent Chair of the Board?
- Do you accept the following in relation to Newco?
- It will be dependent on a contract with News Corporation for 85% of its revenues and 25% of its costs.
- It will be dependent on News Corporation to distribute its TV news output on the BSkyB network.
- It will only be viable long-term if Newscorp are willing to renew the Carriage Agreement.
- How is the proposed remedy consistent with the OFT’s guidance that it is rare to accept even interim purchase/supply arrangements between merging partners and the divestment business given the requirements for a clear cut remedy in lieu of a Competition Commission reference?
- Company Directors have a duty to act in the interests of their company and shareholders. Therefore is it not the case that as Newscorp are the main customer and distributor for Sky News the Directors of Newco will have a duty to respond positively to the interests of Newscorp?
Finally you have confirmed that it is the Government’s intention to introduce a new Communications Bill. Will you accept my offer to work with you to ensure the Act can be passed by 2013 rather than 2015? Creating a new regulatory environment is a jobs and growth issue and therefore we should move quickly. In light of the very real issues of impartiality that have arisen in relation to this case, will you consider including provisions in the Bill which would in future remove politicians from having any quasi-judicial role in relation to specific plurality and cross media ownership decisions?
I look forward to your reply.
Ivan Lewis MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport