Ofcom ruling on Sky will test Cameron if Tories win

Could David Cameron's commitment that a future Tory government would restrict Ofcom’s remit have anything to do with Rupert Murdoch's decision to support him?

When, with impeccable timing, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper came out for David Cameron and blighted Gordon Brown’s big conference speech, it was an easy enough to assume that this was reward for past promises. The most important being the Tory leader’s commitment that a future Conservative government would restrict Ofcom’s remit to a narrow technical enforcement role, stripping it of its policy making role and knocking it back to “regulating lightly.” Ofcom, as we knew it, would cease to exist.

Cameron had come to the aid of the Murdochs when Ofcom had had the timidity to criticise Sky’s monopolistic control (80 per cent of Premier League football and 100 per cent of Hollywod movies prevented others from entering the market). Ofcom ruled that Sky be required to sell its rights to all comers at 30 per cent less than it currently charges.

Today that screw has been tightened. The Guardian is reporting that BT and Virgin expect to take advantage of Ofcom’s plans to force Sky to drop the price it charges rival broadcasters for its Sky Sports channel.

The timing is again impeccable. With a formal announcement in March, it’s just in time for the 2010/11 Premier League football season which also makes it weeks away from the General Election. If the opinion polls are anything to go by this would leave a Prime Minister Cameron having to overturn the independent regulator’s decision or upset the Murdoch empire. They will play for time through the courts if necessary and Ofcom will eventually pay the price.

With an election, and a possible change of government more sympathetic to their thinking, only weeks away those politicians and groups that have longed wanted to let the free market rule are preparing the ground. Policy Exchange’s report, ‘Changing the Channel’, out last week
argues that, with technological changes and increased competition, public service broadcasting belongs to the past.  It is no longer viable, they argue, for the major terrestrial to be obliged to comply with a public service remit. Spectrum once scarce does not need to be managed.

That the word is changing with the British media now exposed to increased competition as a consequence of the growing integration of globalised communications there is no doubt.  But this is not a reason, it’s an excuse. Free market ideas have been the main driving force shaping media policy and pressure groups and neo-liberal think tanks such as Policy Exchange and the Adam Smith Institute have long wanted the BBC broken up.

Public service obligations and regulation are anathema so it’s not surprising that they are capitalising on the changing media landscape, technological and the economic problems of ITV to pursue their aims. Strip ITV of any public service remit and privatise Channel Four.

Authors of ‘Power without Responsibility‘ now in its seventh edition, James Curran and Jean Seaton, in a revised chapter on media reform. Democratic choices, seek to highlight the way in which media politics is no longer purely national – the exclusive concern of national government:

“It is not something that can be left safely to specialists, powerful lobbies and politicians who – unexposed to public pressure – will tend to curry favour with media magnets.”

The Tories will be presented with an early test over Ofcom we can expect the unholy alliance between Cameron and Murdoch (and it has to be said with Blair beforehand) will eventually benefit News Corporation on ownership and regulation but it won’t be rushed – it will evolve over time unless it can be resisted.

Our guest writer is Joy Johnson, a lecturer in journalism at City University and a former political journalist.

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