Probe looks at BSkyB’s ITV stake

Competition body could force sale

LONDON — Europe’s leading paybox BSkyB is to undergo a regulatory inquiry that could result in an enforced sale of its stake in terrestrial web ITV.

The 17.9% holding, bought last November to block a Virgin Media takeover of ITV, is to be examined by Blighty’s Competition Commission.

The decision Thursday by the British government’s Department of Trade and Industry follows recommendations by communications regulator, Ofcom, and the Office of Fair Trading.

Ofcom is worried that BSkyB’s ownership of almost a fifth of ITV could compromise the range of U.K. TV news providers should Sky News and ITV news combo ITN merge.

The OFT said the stake raises questions relating to ITV’s independence.

The Competition Commission will examine both points.

The DTI will report back by November and may lead to BSkyB, which is also the subject of an Ofcom inquiry examining the British pay-TV market, either reducing or selling all its stock in ITV.

Recently News Corp chair, Rupert Murdoch, which owns 35% of BSkyB, said: “We have done nothing illegal. The 20% limit in ownership (in the 2003 Communications Act) was known as the Murdoch clause, and we stayed under the 20%.

“We are not worried by any of these inquiries, however long they take.

“I’m disappointed simply that the politicians chickened out and punt these things to these quangos (quasi-nongovernmental organization).”

BSkyB stunned the U.K. media industry when it bought the ITV stake paying almost $2 billion.

The company’s CEO, James Murdoch, has said repeatedly that BSkyB intends to be a passive investor.

In a interview published this month in U.K. magazine Management Today he said: “We took the view that ITV has real turnaround potential and a world-class brand, huge connection with viewers, a great program-making company…

“It’s not the time for the business to be kicked around. It needs time and some leadership. We can help provide that.”

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