Fleet Street unites against Murdoch

Media heads warn Vince Cable that Murdoch's bid for BSkyB could destroy media plurality.

Rupert Murdoch has long seen himself as an "anti-establishment" radical and this morning he will feel vindicated. His bid to take full ownership of BSkyB (he currently owns a 39 per cent stake) has achieved the rare feat of uniting the highly factionalised world of Fleet Street around a single cause: to stop Murdoch.

A remarkable cross-section of media executives have written to Vince Cable urging him to consider blocking News Corp's takeover bid on plurality grounds. Signatories to the letter include Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT, Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Andrew Miller, chief executive of Guardian Media Group and David Abraham, chief executive of Channel 4.

For the Telegraph, which has a long-standing non-aggression pact with News International, to intervene in this fashion, reveals the degree of concern over Murdoch's takeover plan.

When questioned on the subject at a recent New Statesman fringe event, Cable replied:

I am not willing to express a view on it. This is a legal process. The power that I have as a secretary of state is limited to a judgement on whether the media plurality is affected on this - and I will form a judgement if a bid is made, but as yet no bid has been made.

If Cable's aim is to preserve media plurality then there is only one possible conclusion: the deal must be blocked. 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 media analyst 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.

That Murdoch has a history of editorial intervention is not strictly relevant: it would be undesirable for any individual or company, however benevolent, to achieve such a concentration of ownership. But it certainly raises the stakes.

David Cameron, who could count on the full-throated support of Murdoch's newspapers during the election and whose communications director, Andy Coulson, remains close to News International, now faces a major political dilemma. Does he defend plurality and competition, or will he stay loyal to his media patron?

We know that Murdoch visited Downing Street just a week after Cameron became prime minister. Was Cameron leant on to approve the BSkyB deal? We may be about to find out.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.