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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Gang of Four’s David Owen says Labour should “proudly and coherently” work with the SNP

The former Labour politician and SDP co-founder tells his old party to “face up to reality” and agree to ally with the SNP.

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won't find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they've always done that with every form of Labour leader we've ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They've got to widen their base, and they've got to widen it in an election. That doesn't stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I'm not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should've lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain't going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you've never performed yourself in government, you've never held a serious job anywhere else. It's a very, very big thing. He didn't want to be leader of the party, he didn't expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We've got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of mollified form of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition