Deal or no deal, Sky is regulators’ hardest ever test
Weak governments put off making tough choices. Which is obviously one reason why the culture secretary plants more acres of long grass whenever the next decisions about the Murdoch takeover of Sky have to be taken. Is Rupert too powerful, a political puppet master? Hardly. He can’t even get Tory ministers dancing to his tune these days.
It was always pretty likely that Karen Bradley would take the long, high road of non-approval, going to Ofcom, pondering for months, then referring the deal to the Competition and Markets Authority, led by a former Ofcom chair. Expect six months more pondering, with maybe a few extra weeks on top. It’s a weird way for an allegedly buccaneering Brexit nation to do business.
The CMA will face two issues. Does all of Sky, plus news-provision contracts, plus the remaining Murdoch press empire, represent a diminution of media plurality? And, a new complication: is the potential “Foxification” of Sky News a dangerous possibility, with “broadcasting standards” in pawn?
“Entities which adopt controversial or partisan approaches to news and current affairs in other jurisdictions should, at the same time, have a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards here,” Bradley says.
The grass grows even longer. A regulator can calculate market shares and reach a conclusion. But how do you decide whether the toxicity of Fox News in New York will infect innocent British outlets?
There’s a rich stew of arguments here. Some people don’t trust the family Murdoch under any circumstances. Some are horrified by the rash of female assaults and fat legal settlements that dog Fox News. Some remember phone hacking. Some are incensed by the way Fox tolerates phoney stories that keep its Trump fires burning. Some see Murdoch corporate slop seeping into Britain. Some have old political scores to settle. And Ofcom doesn’t like the way the channel repeatedly promised to comply with British standards, then did nothing.
Can so many charges ever be reconciled? Perhaps not. Ed Miliband, a leader of the Thwart Rupert campaign, sees no regulatory end in sight. “Our broadcasting code is not enough protection because its impartiality rules can’t take account of story selection, tone or prominence. And an aggressive media owner can push the limits. The way to prevent ... the ‘Foxification’ of Sky is to stop the bid.”
Professor Steven Barnett, a longterm Murdoch foe, tears into Ofcom for arguing that broadcasting standards were not endangered here. “A supine regulator appears to have been captured by its most powerful stakeholder, while a robust government looks determined to stand up for the public interest.”
But do Ed and the professor recognise a double-edged sword waving under their noses? Anger over “story selection, tone and prominence” is exactly the beef of rampant Brexiters trying to intimidate the BBC. Ofcom, after the last charter renewal, is the BBC’s shield against power plays by a “robust government”.
Bradley has set a profound test for British media regulation. Define plurality in an era of shrinking print influence. And establish clear principles of media conduct as they cross borders.
The City and Wall Street are still rating eventual approval a 70% chance. That’s probably Bradley’s private bet, too. But now – perhaps more important than deal or no deal – is the moment of truth for regulatory defences built over decades. Can they be tough and clear – and principled?