Thanks to the election being called on 8th June, those who stay loyal to the impartial standards of BBC News have a little more breathing space before Ofcom decides if 21st Century Fox can buy the 61% of Sky plc it doesn’t already own.
This U.S. multi-media conglomerate is 39% owned by the Murdoch Family Trust; its chairman, surprise, surprise, is Rupert Murdoch, whose son, James, is the CEO as well as the chairman of Sky. FOX News (CEO Rupert Murdoch) belongs to 21st C Fox and is the leading cable news broadcaster in America, where its motto ‘fair and balanced’ is in conflict with a reputation that is deep-rooted in populism and sexism. Such standards are thought to raise questions about the proposed Sky deal.
Ofcom has the unenviable job of deciding whether the role of Murdoch family members’ renders 21st C Fox ‘unsuitable’ as the 100% owner of SKY plc. It had said ‘No’ once before, after the phone-hacking scandal, but the Murdochs are a tad persistent. Because the decision is deemed political, Ofcom’s deadline is now 20th June.
Meanwhile, Ofcom continues to take evidence, such as that from Lisa Bloom, a lawyer who speaks for three women alleging sexual harassment at Fox News. She came here to address Ofcom, with the claim that “19th Century Fox” is not a ‘fit and proper’ company to take over all of Sky. These allegations involved the founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, recently deposed alongside anchorman Bill O’Reilly. As Ailes has just died that may be one less case for Ofcom to take into account. This could sound cynical, but really isn’t when ‘fit and proper’ criteria are ultimately legal issues.
Others have commented similarly on the timing of the Sun losing its former editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, from the News UK stable (Murdoch-owned; CEO: Rebekah Brooks) just when ‘fit and proper’ is driving Ofcom’s considerations over Sky. Still more may believe that all was already lost last September when, on her first flying visit to New York as Prime Minister, Theresa May squeezed in a meeting with Br’er Fox in person. Now, in a ‘Warning to British broadcasters’, Andrew Neill has said ‘Even Sky’, which he described as a “brilliantly run company”, ‘looks like it is about to be acquired by Fox’.
Is this one more nail in the coffin of impartiality? At least we’ll soon be told.
Hugh Sheppard (BBCPA Committee member)
Dear Secretary of State,
This is a personal open letter, also to be placed on the website of the independent BBC Pensioners’ Association, of which I am a committee member and former chairman.
I was heartened to learn of your being minded to refer the proposed bid for Sky plc by 21st Century Fox to Ofcom. I was further encouraged on hearing you speak to the House of Commons on Monday, when you raised a number of important issues.
If Sky, already with an income from the UK and Ireland of more than twice the BBC’s £3.7bn p.a. from licence fees, is to become wholly under the aegis of an American multimedia company, it would show that the Government no longer regards the BBC as the ‘Voice of the Nation’. For that company to be 21st Century Fox, run on the ethics of a dynastic family, would confirm that the Government believes that commercial criteria, no matter how compromised, count for more than any principles of public service.
This should not be taken as a plea for the BBC not to face competition. Broadcasting is already losing ground to the challenge of social media at every turn. If Sky’s acquisition by 21st Century Fox were to raise the overall level of public interest in broadcasting in general, and broadcast news in particular, the BBC should readily accommodate a fellow traveller bound by the same standards of impartiality as itself. But that situation already pertains, such that a change of Sky ownership would, on the face of it, imply the same Government and Ofcom policies about news content.
What those policies won’t do is answer concerns about plurality across media platforms that UK and European legislation seeks to address. It would mean a concentration of Sky’s international, national and regional broadcasting interests being held in common ownership by Murdoch family members alongside their UK newspaper interests in the Times, the Sun and regional distribution.
Surely, the essential analysis is not so much about which entity owns what, but about who directly controls cross-media ownership, promotion and advertising.
Whether it is News UK and Sky in Britain, News Corp and Foxtel in Australia or News Corp and Fox News in America, this international behemoth cannot pretend to have any other motive at its heart than corporate self-interest.
Outstanding questions over the ‘fit and proper person’ test are legion, with phone-hacking at the forefront of UK concerns, Rebekah Brooks back again as the CEO of News UK, Leveson 2 apparently stillborn, and James Murdoch, already chairman of Sky and CEO of 21st Century Fox, backing Team Sky with its reputation so recently laid bare by the DCMS Select Committee.
This at a time when, between yourself at DCMS, Sharon White at Ofcom and Damian Collins MP at the Select Committee, the relationships of culture, media and sport seems, at last, to be properly motivated in the national interest. Now it is up to the three of you not to let the machinations of Messrs. Murdoch scupper broadcasting as we know it.
For 21st Century Fox to acquire Sky could mean the end of the very special identity British broadcasting has brought to radio, television and film-making. In any event, this would very likely bring about the end of the distinctive identity of the BBC. That this still stands high could not be better expressed than by Sharon White in closing her speech to the Oxford Media Convention earlier this week:
“The BBC is for everyone; it lies at the centre of our collective, cultural identity.”
If this can survive the present hiatus, I feel sure that a vote of confidence from members of this association will be overwhelmingly endorsed by society at large.