My esteemed colleage Nick Cohen dislikes disagreeing with the equally estimable James Forsyth and I dislike disagreeing with Nick in turn. But his comments on the decision not to block Rupert Murdoch’s bid to purchase the 61% of BSkyB he did not already own seem unecessarily belligerent and, moreover, hyperbolic. Nick writes:
The editors of every newspaper, television channel and radio station, with the exception of editors at News International, will be telling their hacks to go for Hunt. My colleagues will have a solid public interest justification for acting in their employers’ interest because we will be punishing corruption so blatant a seven-year-old could see through it. Rupert Murdoch offered Hunt propaganda on behalf of the Tory Party, Mr Hunt gave him a business favour in return. Berlusconi’s Italy manages itself with more honour than this.
Quick, find me a seven-year-old because I don’t see this. Certainly Murdoch’s newspapers endorsed the Conservatives last May. But so did plenty of non-Murdoch papers. If I understand the objections to the deal correctly – which is not a given since they seem flimsy to me – they rest principally on the fear that by owning all of BSkyB and collecting all, rather than just 39% of its profits, Murdoch will be in a position to subsidise his loss-making newspapers and, perhaps, launch another price war that could drive one or more of his competitors out of business.
Clearly that could happen. But the logic of this is surely that Rupert Murdoch should not be permitted to purchase any profitable business in this country? What’s special about a profitable set of TV channels? The same logic would apply to any other expansion of the Murdoch empire in any sector of the economy and it is far from clear that inconveniencing his competitors is a sufficient justification to prevent him acquiring this particular profitable business – one that, it’s worth remembering, was largely his creation anyway.
I agree with Hopi Sen who puts it well:
As far as I can tell, running a serious news operation is a subtle rent sought by the political classes from large media organisations and paranoid billionaires. Forcing Rupert Murdoch to fund Sky news for a decade merely makes that rent explicit.
Again, the objection to Murdoch appears to be, frankly, that he just has too much money and, actually, is too successful. It is not clear how many other parts of the British economy this test should be applied to.
Including the Wall Street Journal’s Europe edition his newspapers appear 20 times a week, the rest of the national press (the Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Mirror, Mail, Express groups plus the FT) appear 48 times a week. Murdoch’s position is certainly strong but it’s hardly dominant even allowing for his market-leading blatts on Sundays. If his newspapers are more successful than those of his rivals that’s their problem not his and I scarcely see that it’s the government’s responsibility to help prop up loss-making newspapers.
All this, of course, is before one considers the place of the BBC in our media firmament. In short, if Murdoch offered a "bribe" then he’s a fool because there was no need to do so since the merits of his application were strong enough – that is, the arguments against it were so weak – that a bribe or strong-arming was scarcely necessary.