Financial Times, other critics call for government probe

Critics from across the British media spectrum, from the Financial Times to broadcasting mavens, have been putting more pressure on the U.K. government to investigate News Corp.’s proposed takeover of BSkyB, the country’s biggest pay box.

The Financial Times, owned by Pearson Group, is the latest to turn its fire on News Corps.’s plan, announced in June, to buy the 61% of BSkyB owned by outside investors for £8 billion ($12.4 billion).

Outright ownership of BSkyB, which has 80% of the U.K. pay TV market, risks giving Rupert Murdoch too much power in Britain, according to an FT editorial published Sept. 20.

“Murdoch already owns far more of the landscape that he would be allowed in the U.S. and Australia,” said the FT. The FT wants the government to launch an inquiry to see if Murdoch’s planned takeover of the satcaster “serves the public interest.”

To date, government ministers have indicated that there are no grounds for intervening in the proposed buyout.

“It does seem to me that News Corp do control Sky already, so it isn’t clear to me that in terms of media plurality there is a substantive change,” said media minister Jeremy Hunt earlier this year.

But critics of Murdoch owning BSkyB 100% claim it would enable the media mogul to unfairly cross-promote his U.K. TV and press interests, and sell subscription packages bundling together content from across his channels and newsstand titles.

The FT’s warning followed an even more outspoken attack on Murdoch’s plan to seize total ownership of BSkyB by U.K. media media consultant Claire Enders.

In a letter to U.K. business secretary, Vince Cable, empowered to refer the takeover to local regulator Ofcom, Enders forecasts a future in which News Corp’s British revenues grow to a 50% share in both the local newspaper and TV markets.

“The level of concentration (of News Corp. media) already seen in the U.K. is substantially greater than would be allowed in Italian law,” she said. “We are already way past any Berlusconi moment in Britain.”

Other critics of the Murdoch planned takeover are the BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson and the former U.K. film producer David Puttnam.

“The desire of News Corp. to buy the 61% of pay-TV operator BSkyB which it doesn’t already own goes straight to the heart of arguments about media plurality in a modern democracy,” said Puttnam in an article published Sunday in the Observer. “The scope for ensuring that news is manipulated to reflect a particular viewpoint, across different media is very considerable, especially since, if the other shareholders were driven out, News Corp. would for the very first time have untrammelled control of Sky News.”

However, media commentator Steve Hewlett disagreed.

“Superficially, News Corp. owning Sky outright looks pretty scary, but practically what would happen?,” he asked. “Would it amount to monopoly control? Do Murdoch’s U.K. newspapers take a common editorial line or operate a common newsroom?

“There is no evidence so far to suggest that Sky News would be encouraged to operate in a way that would threaten plurality.”

Hewlett added: “While BSkyB is the biggest commercial TV player in the U.K., it is nowhere near being a dominant player culturally because we also have the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. “

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