Cable and Murdoch: it’s war

Expect Murdoch and his henchmen to unleash the forces of hell on the Business Secretary.

In a remarkable demonstration of his independence from David Cameron, Vince Cable has just referred Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB bid to Ofcom on grounds of plurality. Following News International's full-throated support for the Conservatives, Murdoch had hoped that the deal would be nodded through, but he didn't reckon with Cable.

Ofcom will now be required to investigate the bid and report back by 31 December.

The takeover bid has split the cabinet along party lines, and Tory ministers are said to be relaxed about the deal. But the speed with which the Business Secretary has acted (BSkyB officially notified the European Commission of the takeover bid on Wednesday) suggests that he's fully aware of the threat to media plurality.

As Mark Thompson recently argued in his impressive MacTaggart Lecture, Murdoch's 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. If successful, News Corp's bid for the 60.9 per cent of BSkyB that it does not own at present would have disastrous consequences for media plurality.

Once the deal is complete, we can expect Murdoch to bundle his newspapers with Sky subscriptions in an attempt to offset falling circulation. As the media analyst Claire Enders has predicted, by the middle of this decade, the News Corp head 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 power. But it certainly raises the stakes.

Following its eight week public-interest assessment, Ofcom is likely to recommend a full investigation by the Competition Commission – something that could block the deal altogether. In the meantime, expect Murdoch and his henchmen to unleash the forces of hell against Cable.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.