Sold for Sky 

3 March 2011

Admit it to yourself, this isn’t a surprise even if you initially thought it was. It seemed obvious that Sky News was going to be the sacrificial lamb in a News Corp-BSkyB deal given the contentious nature of a news channel where cross-media ownerships are concerned, regardless of any real risk factor(s) involved.

Rumours of The (London) Times being sold off to appease politicians ahead of a BSkyB acquisition now look to be unfounded, even though the newspaper is currently still making a loss, perhaps because the paper still represents prestige as well as having strategic value. (Murdoch may be a die-hard capitalist but newsprint is his bread and butter.)

Rupert Murdoch may not be fallible – there have been a string of business failures over time (Myspace being the most prominent but there are several others) – but his successes have often been spectacular enough to hide them; his biggest weakness by far seems to be dealing with new media, but he has the capital to make huge gambles where needed.

Any claims of future independence for Sky News have to be put in their proper context, because for this to work ‘properly’ in the real world there would have to be a raft of fully functional safeguards. Guaranteed financial independence for the new operation is essential, but that’s unlikely to be the case for this particular arrangement.

Unfortunately, history has shown that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is more than capable of outsmarting and outwitting any obstacles supposedly put in its path when it really wants to, even if some of these ‘obstacles’ turn out to actually be superficial ones, as could be the case with these token gestures designed to smooth the path to a BSkyB takeover.

Will there be a “Fox News UK” launched by BSkyNewsCorpB as an entertainment channel in the future? And what’s to stop Sky News being acquired by some corporate entity that has at least partial News Corp connections? Obviously any future changes to TV news impartiality arrangements will have to be carefully watched as well.

And perhaps significantly, a certain phone hacking scandal involving the (News Corp-owned) News of the World, the police and government ministers suddenly becomes a whole lot more important as a consequence.

Because if when the News Corp-Sky takeover is finally approved, anything that casts doubt on the impartiality of this decision is likely to have even greater implications for the current coalition government, even if any connection(s) are relatively tenuous in their nature.

And that also includes the manner in which Vince Cable was removed from the decision-making process, which seemed to involve the Telegraph newspaper shooting itself in the foot, generating conspiracy theories in the process.

Ofcom may have also recommended a review but Ofcom has to be seen to be doing something other than nothing at all, even if its ‘recommendations’ conveniently get ignored by politicians; it’s just to maintain a facade of democracy when a decision has already been made behind closed doors.

However we mustn’t get too distracted by the sideshow issue of news channels and their impartiality – any “Fox News UK” TV channel would most likely only have a small audience – because the real dangers posed by a News Corp-BSkyB takeover are much more subtle than this and likely to be unnoticed by most people.

(These effects aren’t necessarily political in their nature either.)

No amount of regulation can effectively control the cumulative effect of one company owning some of the most popular UK newspapers and the dominant pay-TV broadcaster, and there’s bound to be something somewhere that has been overlooked by somebody, either by accident or design.

Also don’t forget that political bias can affect much more than news and current affairs channels and programming, and the nature of such bias can be subtle enough to go under the radar of regulation (read: isolated incidences too ‘petty’ for regulators like Ofcom to be bothered with individually, but having a much greater cumulative effect).

The biggest outcome of such a combination is likely to manifest itself in greater profits for News Corp – effectively money leaving the UK – and cross-ownership media concerns, whether it’s the excessive promotion of Fox-produced movies or a News Corp boycott of specific media figures (actors, politicians, etc.) for reason(s) best known only to them.

(Much of this was happening already, but things can only get worse from now onwards.)

Once you get a single corporation owning all of these things, you inevitably end up with one viewpoint stretching across various types of media whether intentional or otherwise, since inevitably there ends up being one level of senior management dictating corporate policies across all divisions.

And when economies of scale kick in for purely capitalist reasons, you get a similar sort of homogenization that has affected ITV in recent years, particularly in England with the mass consolidation of formerly separate ITV franchises owned by different companies; effectively resulting in much less variety and one central commissioning hub.

Expand this concept further across print, online and televisual media and you get a glimpse into the future of commercial British broadcasting from a News Corp viewpoint, which isn’t pretty if you believe in diversity and plurality. The existence of the BBC alone is not enough to maintain sufficient balance, no matter what some may like to think.

And talking of the BBC, having a bigger commercial media operator in the marketplace with an anti-BBC agenda will make life even more difficult for them, not withstanding their own management’s current attempts at sabotaging the corporation from within through misguidance or sheer incompetence.

However some of the blame for this mess could be directed towards the previous Labour government for not ‘properly’ dealing with the “Murdoch problem” back in 1997, although it seems that Rupert Murdoch (still) represents a large amount of political weight both in the UK and in the US where policymakers seem to be in great awe of him.

So what next for News Corp and BSkyB? Judicial reviews/collapse of the coalition aside, it looks as if BSkyB will be joining the News Corp media stable fairly imminently, although if the political landscape were to change abruptly by the Summer and final negotiations haven’t been completed by then, the acquisition may still have a chance of being stopped.

It’s either that or getting a future centre/left administration to do the (now potentially much harder) job that government should have done back in 1997, unless of course you believe there’s nothing wrong in having one private company having very significant control of the UK media.

You Say

1 response to this article

Chad H. 4 March 2011 at 1:05 am

This makes a strong BBC with a good license fee even more important. With so much of the nations media under one banner, and other media companies ineffective (Virgin has retreated, ITV is ineffective, Five… Is that still on?, the Guardian retreteated from MTV {but may have sworn to return… lets see if it happens})

Time someone took a rod to the media companies and start making them do their job… Do we need to bring back the IBA?

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