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20 September 2010

Cable under growing pressure to tame Murdoch

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.