Yesterday’s announcement by Culture Secretary Karen Bradley that she is “minded” to refer the bid by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to the Competition and Market Authority (CMA) is welcome.
But we should know by now that any political decision involving Murdoch must be scrutinised very carefully. And history tells us that there will be some very grubby attempts at horse trading before that referral is formalised – if it ever happens.
Bradley was clear that Fox now has the opportunity to come back with suggestions (“undertakings in lieu”) for mitigating the concerns that Ofcom has raised about mediaplurality. Fox has already proposed certain “guarantees” to Ofcom around independent members for the Sky News Editorial Board and for maintaining investment in Sky News. Ofcom, astonishingly, appears to have meekly accepted that these might be adequate, seemingly without raising any concerns about the Murdoch empire’s notoriety for breaching every single guarantee of independence ever given. Bradley, to give her credit, has so far indicated an intention to ignore that part of Ofcom’s advice and refer the bid anyway.
What will happen next is entirely predictable. There will be a process of “negotiation” in which the Murdochs will come back with increased promises, guarantees and commitments – accompanied by reams of tightly argued legal justifications – in a desperate bid to avoid the minimum six month delay that a referral to the CMA will entail. Bradley will then come under enormous pressure – from Murdoch, from his newspapers, from his apologists and almost certainly from Downing Street – to accept those undertakings and refuse any further independent investigation.
If she surrenders, as so many Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers have before her, yet more power will be concentrated in the hands of a single corporate entity and a single individual. We should beware the siren voices insisting that plurality is now guaranteed by the proliferation of online and social media, and that anyway the BBC commands even more attention.
First, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or aggregators like Google, are little more than distributors of other publishers’ content. They are not newsgatherers, and most online news content is sourced back to traditional news brands. Murdoch’s papers in the UK remain one of the most significant and powerful original news sources.
Second, the BBC does not campaign according to a partisan agenda laid down by a corporate owner, nor does it set news agendas for other organisations in the way that print and online publishers do. As Bradley said, the Murdochs control news entities across newspapers, radio, TV and online. Its power is concentrated across media unlike any other news organisation or institution, and this acquisition would consolidate that power still further.
If we believe in promoting a diversity of voices and a diversity of gatekeepers for the major sources of mass communication, it cannot be in the public interest to allow such concentration of power in a single organisation with a distinctive worldview which is disseminated throughout its media properties. It is fundamentally dangerous in a democracy.That is why Bradley must show a resolute determination that her predecessors have lacked, must ignore all the Murdoch promises and blandishments, and insist that this bid is properly investigated by the CMA.
Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster