Nation of fools

As the BBC reels from Michael Grade's shock defection, a far greater threat to the future of British

Towards the end of a recent BBC Question Time programme, Polly Toynbee received a thunderous round of applause when she described Rupert Murdoch as "the most pernicious force in the country by far".

Yet even though many citizens may instinctively agree with Richard Branson's assessment that Murdoch is a "threat to democracy", nothing beyond a resounding silence has been heard from either the Labour or the Tory benches following BSkyB's acquisition of a 17.9 per cent stake in ITV - the catalyst for Branson's remarks. Indeed, not a single prominent politician from either major party has thus far broken cover to suggest that the deal might raise serious questions about the future of media plurality in Britain. This is despite, or more probably because of, the fact that Murdoch owns four national newspapers, has de facto control of the BSkyB pay-television service (through a 38 per cent shareholding), owns www.myspace.com, the social networking site most heavily used by the UK's young people, and has now perched himself on the catbird seat at our largest commercial terrestrial broadcaster.

It is easy to dismiss Branson's comments as sour grapes, given that BSkyB's purchase of an ITV stake has in effect scuppered the chances of NTL (in which Branson has a 10.5 per cent holding) acquiring control of the terrestrial giant. Whatever the catalyst, I still believe Branson's outburst to have been sincere, that he was speaking as much as a citizen as a businessman, and, most importantly, that he is absolutely right on this occasion.

Yet, astonishingly, the public has no idea whether there is anyone in parliament who agrees with him. It's almost as if there's a conspiracy of silence, a conspiracy fuelled by a fear of alienating the most powerful media owner in the country.

In purely business terms, there is no question that by ac quiring its stake in ITV, BSkyB pulled off a spectacular coup - only equalled by ITV's acquisition, a few days later, of Michael Grade as its executive chairman. It is hard to imagine the brilliantly combative Grade finding it easy to accommodate a significant shareholder who is also competing in the very areas of entertainment, news and sport that will naturally be his focus for success.

At stake is the erosion of competition within the British media, and the consequences that has for British democracy.

There are those who seem willing to accept that BSkyB's move is merely an attempt to shut out NTL. But as Neil Chenoweth, one of Murdoch's biographers, has written, in Murdoch's deal-making "there is always a second strand running below the public trans action, known only to insiders, and then there is a third strand running under that again, which no one ever sees".

In the case of ITV one can only guess at what the second and third strands might be. But some analysts have suggested that the acquisition of a stake in ITV is merely Murdoch's first card in a longer game, one in which he will end up controlling Channel 5. RTL, owner of Channel 5, is strongly rumoured to be interested in ITV. Murdoch might be willing to sell out to RTL and to the other ITV shareholders in exchange for the prize of the fifth channel.

Dominant satellite position

That would not just be a "threat to British democracy", it would be a further step in a process that can only end in disaster. The cap acity of Murdoch's British interests to "cross-promote" that terrestrial channel, using their dominant satellite position and their newspaper holdings, would be without precedent. The bleat that Channel 5 has merely 5.5 per cent of terrestrial viewing would very quickly become history as the new, heavily promoted, "super soaraway Five" dug deep into the market share of its rivals.

BSkyB's acquisition of a stake in ITV shows exactly why, in the teeth of fierce opposition from both the government and the Conservative front bench, the House of Lords was absolutely right to insist that a "public interest test" be inserted in the Communications Act 2003, so that the consequences for our democracy of mergers and changes of control within the media sector could be scrutinised and, if necessary, stopped.

Ofcom has now begun its own scrutiny of the acquisition of the ITV stake, and the Office of Fair Trading is also likely to get involved. That would inevitably lead to politicians being drawn into making decisions about where the public interest really does lie.

For myself, I have no doubts. This deal should not be allowed to stand. It is my personal belief that BSkyB, and thereby Rupert Murdoch, has unquestionably acquired "material influence" at ITV, and that this can only lead to a further and unprecedented erosion of plurality within the British media.

In 1990 when Sky merged with BSB to create BSkyB, there was a rancorous Commons debate about the issue. The then shadow home secretary, Roy Hattersley, made a scathing attack on the government's supine attitude toward Murdoch's interests, going so far as to question the legality of the deal.

Public opinion - a surprise?

In the intervening 16 years, it has apparently become unthinkable that a front-bench politician of either of the main parties would even consider passing comment on any further extension of Murdoch's tentacles, in the apparent belief that to do so is to incur the wrath of the Sun and the Times, and thereby to court electoral disaster.

But public opinion has a nice way of surprising you, more so than ever in this digital age of blogs and social networking, when information and beliefs can be transmitted to millions with a simple click of the mouse.

In recent weeks, Murdoch was given a wake-up call when, following a wave of public revulsion, he was forced to cancel a proposed book and TV programme in the US in which O J Simpson offered a hypothetical account of how he would have killed his former wife and her friend.

That round of applause for Toynbee's remark on Question Time should serve as a different kind of wake-up call - this time directed at our elected representatives.

Its message is succinct: enough is enough. The time has come for politicians from all sides to step up and clarify their position on the future of democratic pluralism in our media.

If they are really serious about regaining the respect, let alone the trust, of the electorate, it is time they stopped shaping their electoral strategies in response to the leader columns of any of our national newspapers, and started demonstrating a belief that the votes of millions at the ballot box count for more than the self-interest of a handful of manipulative media barons.

Lord Puttnam is a Labour peer, and was chair of the parliamentary committee that examined the Communications Bill. Deputy chairman of Channel 4, he writes here in a personal capacity