Cable under growing pressure to tame Murdoch

Murdoch’s plan to take over BSkyB is a threat to pluralism and liberalism.

Away from the Lib Dem conference, Vince Cable is facing more calls to investigate Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB takeover bid. The Financial Times is the latest party to sound the alarm over Murdoch's plan to take full control of the broadcaster (News Corp currently owns a 39 per cent stake).

In an editorial today, the paper warns that a News-Sky deal could "lock out challengers" and "stifle diversity of debate". The FT's stance is partly born of self-interest (the paper's main competitor is the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal) but, like others, it recognises that the principle of a plural media is one worth fighting for.

As Mark Thompson recently argued in his impressive MacTaggart Lecture, Murdoch's takeover bid, if successful, would lead to a "concentration of cross-media ownership" that would be unacceptable in the United States or Australia.

As the owner of the Sun, the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times, Murdoch already controls 37.3 per cent of UK newspaper circulation and, based on revenue, Sky is now the country's largest broadcaster, with an annual income of £5.4bn. With the Times already behind a paywall and the News of World soon to follow, his game plan is coming into view.

Once the deal is complete, we can expect the News Corp head to bundle his newspapers with Sky subscriptions in an attempt to offset falling circulation. As Claire Enders has predicted, by the middle of this decade, Murdoch could control 50 per cent of the newspaper and television markets, a concentration of ownership that would make even Silvio Berlusconi blush.

There is still -- just -- enough time for Cable, in his capacity as Business Secretary, to refer the deal to Ofcom on the grounds of media plurality. But he must intervene before the European Commission's judgement. It would be a betrayal of liberalism were he not to.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the gathering was remarkably fractious (PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatened to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, emphasised that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question. She said she would listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and would soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible that with improving technology large submarines could easily be tracked and detected and attacked by drones. She said so it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

But former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained that she had failed to understand how the UK's nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it was "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year, the battle is on to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.