With so much focus on Rupert Murdoch’s local newspaper and TV empire, media plurality is a hot-button topic in the UK these days. In a report commissioned by embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt – before he himself became a hot-button topic – Ofcom today said the government should be involved in creating a framework to measure media plurality. But it stopped short of suggesting “absolute limits” on news market share. That’s important because politicians have recently called for Murdoch to be forced to sell The Times or The Sun newspapers based on his 34% grip on the playing field. Ofcom did say, however, that it believes that no organization should hold “too large” a market share. The regulator also suggested that because of its leading position in TV, radio and online news, the BBC should be included in any future plurality review. Given their disdain for the Beeb, that last point should please the Murdochs. The full report is here.
UPDATE, 8:37 AM: David Cameron began the afternoon session at Leveson by immediately clarifying hesitant and vague comments he’d made earlier about his relationship with Rebekah Brooks. Noting that his wife keeps excellent diaries, he said he was only at his country residence, just down the road from Brooks, every six weeks in 2008 & 2009 and even less than that in 2010. Once that was handled, questioning turned to the BSKyB bid and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s role in it.
Cameron has vociferously defended Hunt, refusing to refer him to an independent probe on ministerial conduct. That’s despite revelations of a close relationship between Hunt’s and James Murdoch’s offices and his public support of the bid before being given oversight of it. When Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his responsibility in the bid, after he was caught by undercover reporters saying he’d declared “war on Murdoch,” Hunt was installed to replace him. Although the affair was turned around in an afternoon, Cameron insisted, “It was not a rushed, botched decision.” It also recently came to light that on the same day, Downing Street had received legal advice that remarks made by Hunt could be seen as “prejudging the issues.” Cameron told the inquiry, “If anyone had told me that Jeremy Hunt couldn’t do the job, I wouldn’t have given him the job.”
PREVIOUS, 6:06 AM: Toeing a familiar line, UK Prime Minister David Cameron today denied he ever had an “overt” or a “covert” deal with the Murdochs in exchange for their newspapers’ support. The PM also added that he didn’t believe in “wink and nod deals” and shot down the idea that the Conservative Party and Murdoch’s UK press arm News International got together and plotted an exchange to pass News Corp’s BSkyB bid.
The morning session of the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethichs – which Cameron himself convened last year – got off to a slow start with counsel Robert Jay lobbing softballs at the relaxed politician. Increasingly, however, Cameron appeared frustrated by questions about his relationships with the Murdochs and former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks – along with a pretty damning text message – and his hiring of former News Of The World editor Andy Coulson as his communications director.
On his relationship with Brooks, who is now facing charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice related to the phone-hacking scandal, Cameron was somewhat vague. The two had known each other for some time before she started dating Cameron’s Oxfordshire neighbor Charlie Brooks, but he said their relationship grew after she became engaged to and moved in with Brooks, “a few miles down the road.” When queried as to how often they saw each other, Cameron said, “It’s very difficult because I don’t have a record and I don’t want to give you an [inaccurate] answer… Sometimes quite a bit… Definitely once she started going out with Charlie… I was definitely seeing her more often. Charlie and I play tennis so… ”
The smart money is betting that James Murdoch will hang on to his job as chairman of BSkyB tomorrow when the board reviews his fitness to oversee the UK pay TV giant. Directors will discuss Murdoch at its first gathering since at least two News Corp executives contradicted a key point in James’ testimony to Parliament last week regarding what he knew — or didn’t know — about the extent of phone hacking at his company’s News Of The World: He said that he didn’t know that more than one reporter was involved in hacking when he authorized an astronomical $1.4M payment to a hacking victim — on the condition that he remain quiet. A former NOTW editor and lawyer say that they sent James an email that showed others were involved and that the payment would help to obscure the extent of the problem. Sky Deputy Chairman Nicholas Ferguson has talked to James about the matter and said he supports Murdoch, the Guardian reports. “The board is understood to be satisfied that there is support for the chairman” among major BSkyB shareholders, the paper adds. The Murdoch family controls about 40% of the voting shares.
News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch dug in his heels in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, which he also happens to own. He maintains that his company only made “minor mistakes” in the way it dealt with the UK News Of The World phone-hacking scandal and that the hit to News Corp’s reputation is “nothing that will not be recovered.” He added: “We have a reputation of great good works in this country.” He decided to testify next week at a hearing by a parliamentary committee investigating the scandal because some of the charges against News Corp “are total lies” and “it’s important to absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public.” Murdoch says he will create a committee run by a “distinguished non-employee” that will “investigate every charge of improper conduct” and develop a “protocol for behavior” for all News Corp reporters.
The company chief says that his son James, who’s deputy COO and oversaw NOTW before closing it, “acted as fast as he could, the moment he could.” The demise of his $14 billion deal to buy BSkyB means Rupert can focus on “buying back shares and looking for better places to put our money.”
It’s Official: News Corp Withdraws BSkyB Bid
Will U.S. Officials Now Investigate Murdoch?
So what now for Rupert Murdoch? Well, he’ll have a lot more cash to play with now that he has decided to scrap his $14 billion acquisition of the BSkyB shares that he doesn’t already own. He’ll probably look for something else to buy, possibly in education services — his new passion. You can be sure that it won’t be an asset that would require him to seek approval from government officials. But his shareholders also are eager to get their hands on some of that loot. Murdoch tried to appease them yesterday by announcing that News Corp would buy back $5B worth of its own stock. Don’t be surprised if they start lobbying for higher dividends too. Murdoch may have to give them what they want if News Corp’s stock price falls as questions arise about his management, the quality of the board of directors’ oversight — and, especially, succession plans.
Some analysts say the Murdoch’s defeat may lead him to think about selling, not buying. His newspapers, once his proudest possession, could be seen as too much trouble. Nomura Equity Research’s Michael Nathanson says in a report today that the newspapers are “highly inconsequential” for the entertainment company.
News Corp In Effect Withdraws BSkyB Bid? Has UK Phone-Hacking Scandal Sunk Rupert Murdoch’s Biggest Deal? New Revelations
3RD UPDATE: Trying to unravel the confusion, a News Corp insider tells us: “We are withdrawing our proposed undertaking to spin off Sky News. As a result, the consideration of plurality will move from [UK Culture Secretary] Jeremy Hunt to the Competition Commission for review.” (News Corp. had previously made a series of concessions in relation to the BSkyB bid in an attempt to prevent a lengthy regulatory investigation by the UK’s antitrust regulator. These concessions included spinning off its 24-hour news channel, Sky News. News Corp withdrew these concessions in light of the regulatory review.) Deadline’s Tim Adler says London sees this as a very clever face-saving move by News Corp. Referring it to the Competition Commission, which will take months to compile its recommendation until early 2012, means that News Corp is trying to take the politics out of the approval process. The Big Media giant hopes to sit back and wait rather than be bounced into withdrawing its bid completely. But that may be wishful thinking: British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Monday that News Corp “reconsider” its bid for BSkyB. Wall Street believes the effect will be the same: the BskyB bid looks dead. By midday, News Corp shares had sunk nearly 7%.
Meanwhile, new revelations keep coming up by the day and even hour: the latest is from former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown who says he, too, was hacked by Rupert Murdoch’s journalists who tried to illegally obtain private information from his telephone and financial records for more than 10 years as well as medical information about his family.
2ND UPDATE: News Corp just came out with its announcement regarding its BSkyB bid, and Wall Street is trying to decipher what is an indecipherable statement: When is a “withdrawal” an actual withdrawal of News Corp’s BSkyB bid? News Corp uses the words “withdrawing its proposed undertakings”:
LONDON — News Corporation today announces that it is withdrawing its proposed undertakings in lieu of reference to the Competition Commission with respect to its proposed acquisition of BSkyB. Should the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport decide on this basis to refer the proposed transaction to the Competition Commission for a detailed review, News Corporation is ready to engage with the Competition Commission on substance. News Corporation continues to believe that, taking into account the only relevant legal test, its proposed acquisition will not lead to there being insufficient plurality in news provision in the UK.
Immediately following, UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt makes these relevant remarks regarding the proposed merger of News Corp/BSkyB:
I also have to make a decision about News Corporation’s plans to buy the shares it does not already own in BSkyB. I know that colleagues on all sides of this House and the public at home feel very concerned at the prospect of the organisation which allegedly allowed these terrible things to happen being allowed to take control of what would become Britain’s biggest media company.
I understand that in the last few minutes News Corporation have withdrawn their Undertakings in Lieu.
On January 25th I said I was minded to refer News Corporation’s proposed merger with BSkyB to the Competition Commission in the absence of any specific undertakings in lieu.
As a result of News Corporation’s announcement this afternoon I am now going to refer this to the Competition Commission with immediate effect and will be writing to them this afternoon.
Today’s announcement will be an outcome that I am sure the whole house will welcome.
It will mean that the Competition Commission will be able to give further full and exhaustive consideration of this merger taking into account all relevant recent developments.
Mr Speaker, protecting our tradition of a strong, free and independent media is the most sacred responsibility I have as Culture Secretary. Irresponsible, illegal and callous behaviour damages that freedom by weakening public support for the self-regulation upon which it has thrived. By dealing decisively with the abuses of power we have seen, hopefully on a cross-party basis, this government intends to strengthen and not diminish press freedom, making this country once again proud and not ashamed of the journalism that so shapes our democracy.
MONDAY AM UPDATE: DETAILS COMING… SOURCES JUST TOLD ME NEWS CORP IS WITHDRAWING ITS BSKYB BID. AN OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT IS EXPECTED. SOON…
That would mean the scandal sank a deal worth more than all of Rupert Murdoch’s papers combined — his $14-billion bid for the 61% of the pay-TV operator that News Corp doesn’t already own. Murdoch’s deal was to have been approved at the start of the weekend but then was delayed until the Fall because of the scandal. Owning BSkyB outright would mean News Corp was getting its hands on the UK satellite giant’s swelling £5.7 billion ($9 billion) revenues. It would also cement Rupert’s position as the most powerful media baron in Britain. It was already clear that, because of the scandal, UK’s FCC equivalent Ofcom would further delay News Corp’s 100% takeover of BSkyB that would have been the biggest deal of Murdoch’s storied career. So any decision to withdraw his bid may be seen as his biggest business defeat. Even the delay is disastrous for him, since BSkyB also is the last and most important piece of his ambitious plan to control satellite TV across the globe.
Had Murdoch been successful, he would have been the UK’s leading television gatekeeper determining what channels could thrive or fail. BSkyB also is a major provider of broadband and phone services, which makes it a dependable source of cash. When Murdoch made his formal bid for BSkyB last year, COO Chase Carey said that it “presents an opportunity to consolidate a core business with which we have been closely associated for over two decades. News Corporation will also benefit from increasing the geographic diversification of our earnings base, reducing our exposure to cyclical advertising revenues and increasing our direct consumer subscription revenues.” As a minority owner of BSkyB, Murdoch does not have direct access to the satellite company’s cash flow of more than $800 million a year. Investors also didn’t give News Corp the credit for its BSkyB holdings that Murdoch felt his company deserved. But shareholders had mixed feelings about the acquisition. Many wanted Murdoch to use his resources to buy back shares – in effect, give money back to investors. BSkyB’s stock has been falling, and today the first of what undoubtedly will be many shareholder lawsuits related to the phone-hacking scandal was filed in Wilmington, Delaware, where News Corp is incorporated.
UPDATE: UK Regulator Asks If News Corp Is Fit To Own BSkyB After Growing Scandal Leads To Inquiries And Arrest
Today sees huge changes in the British media landscape. Jeremy Hunt, the UK culture secretary, has approved Rupert Murdoch’s controversial bid to buy the 61% of pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB he does not already own. Hunt has decided not to refer News Corp’s £7.5 billion bid to UK antitrust regulator the Competition Commission. News Corp has offered to spin off news channel Sky News into a separate company. Rival news organisations have complained that News Corp would control too many news outlets if it owns Sky News and newspapers. Murdoch has offered to keep the loss-making news channel going for another 7-10 years. Sky News loses around £20 million ($33 million) each year. This approval is quite a milestone in seeing Rupert Murdoch becoming even more powerful.
News Corp has balked at selling off Sky News to satisfy Brussels. Despite that nose-thumbing, the European Commission has extended from December 8 to December 22 the deadline for the first phase of its competition investigation of Rupert Murdoch’s £12 billion ($19 billion) takeover of BSkyB. What Brussels is worried …
James Murdoch has warned the UK government that News Corp could move overseas if the regulator blocks its £7.8 billion ($12.5 billion) bid for BSkyB. News Corp’s European and Asian boss made the veiled threat talking to investment bank analysts in Barcelona. The government must decide whether it wants to risk “jeopardising an £8 billion investment in the UK” with a prolonged investigation, Murdoch said, noting that News Corp could relocate some of its most innovative projects to more “welcoming” countries if the UK blocks its bid for BSkyB. “From India to Italy and to Germany, countries are becoming more welcoming of investment and more welcoming of what we can bring,” Murdoch said.
No wonder Rupert Murdoch is so keen to own BSkyB outright. Having invested so heavily in technology, from digital switch-over right through to 3D, Murdoch wants to reap his investment. Sky’s annual turnover in its last financial year to June 2010 was £5.9 billion. It’s estimated this will grow to …
Speaking in the House of Lords, the UK equivalent of the Senate, David Puttnam said that News Corp’s bid to take control of BSkyB posed a threat to democracy. Here are excerpts from the speech given by the one-time Columbia Pictures boss:
My Lords… I had the honour of entering your Lordships House thirteen years ago tomorrow. Since that time there have been three or four really big issues with which I’ve consistently tried to engage – in part because they relate to experiences gained in my former life, but also because I believe they represent the type of issues upon which rests the future of the type of society most of us would wish to live in… My Lords, the purpose of this afternoon’s debate is to draw attention to the possibility that we are on the edge of a very slippery slope – one that could find us falling further and further under the influence of a single, US-based owner, with a highly questionable interest in the benefits of a diverse and flourishing plural media here in the United Kingdom. So why this debate, and why now?
The primary reason My Lords is that News Corporation yesterday notified the European Commission of its intention to purchase the 61% of BSkyB that it does not presently own. As I’ve already mentioned, this morning we heard the welcome news that this proposal had been referred by the Secretary of State, to Ofcom. It’s my most sincere hope that the Coalition’s proposed ‘trimming’ of Ofcom’s powers will not result in any diminution of its capacity to exercise those powers in respect of important matters such as this.
There, are of course, a number of aspects to media plurality – notably the Government’s proposals to repeal the local “cross-media” ownership laws, but this afternoon I only have time to focus on the really big issue resulting from News Corporation’s power, reach and influence. It’s my contention that if regulators and legislators in Europe and the UK remain supine, and simply wave this proposed acquisition through, the consequences for the citizens, as well as the political class in this country could become deeply troubling. The purchase of these shares would give News Corporation an unprecedented level of control over the UK media, one that to my mind has the potential to be extremely damaging, not just in respect of media plurality, but to informed democratic debate as a whole.