A slow motion death for critics of NewsCorp/BSkyB deal

Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, reacts to the news Jeremy Hunt is allowing just seven more days' consultation on the NewsCorp/BSkyB deal.

Martin Moore is the Director of the Media Standards Trust, an independent, non-partisan charity that works for quality, transparency, and accountability in news

John Woo’s films are famous for their balletic fight sequences. A goodie and a baddie trade blows in ultra slow motion with Swan Lake-like finesse. The process of the News Corp/BSkyB acquisition similarly slowly, if with less balletic grace.

Just when you think the decision will be made, the blade skewered into the gut, it glances away and the fight continues. But each time the end gets closer, and all the time we – the audience – know how it will finish.

Seven more days, we are now told, until a decision is taken. Seven more days of ‘consultation’ before the Secretary of State approves the deal or passes it on to the Competition Commission. Though, realistically, approval has been in little doubt since Vince Cable lost responsibility for making it, following his impolitic remarks to two undercover Telegraph journalists.

As time goes on the battle is fought on more and more limited space. This (final?) consultation is centred entirely on Sky News. Though important, this is like fighting over the inscription on the cup once the game has already been won. Sky News is one element of huge deal that will alter the UKs media landscape for the next two decades.

Even on this limited territory there is good reason to believe the commitments News Corp has made will only provide limited protection for plurality. These commitments are similar to those made when Murdoch acquired The Times, and when he acquired the Wall Street Journal. In both cases those commitments were not sufficient for protecting either news organisation’s independence. Moreover, Sky News will remain physically within NewsCorp. It will rely on about 85% of its funding from NewsCorp. It will be accessed via the NewsCorp/BSkyB platform.

Imagine this scenario. Sky News continues, apparently unchanged, for the next few years. Its economic position then deteriorates, it is unable to find outside funding (because of the peculiarity of its funding status) and it looks like it could go under. NewsCorp offers to bail out the channel, with the consequence that it acquires over 50% share. The decision as to whether the bailout goes through is, as things stand, in the hands of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, currently the Rt. Hon Jeremy Hunt MP. Given the choice of the channel going under, or it continuing with even less independence, s/he reluctantly agrees the bail out.

We are where we are. Were this a John Woo movie then critics of this deal would still be alive but the blade would be coming, ever so slowly but inevitably, towards their throats.

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