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.