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Sky-Fox Deal: U.K. Media Minister Quizzed in Parliament

UPDATED: British lawmakers held an urgent discussion in Parliament on Monday afternoon over 21st Century Fox’s proposed takeover of Europe’s biggest pay-TV operator Sky.

The opposition Labor Party filed an emergency request to quiz the government minister in charge of media policy amid mounting opposition to the $23.2-billion deal, which was announced last Friday. Kevin Brennan, Labor’s spokesman for arts and heritage, and other lawmakers questioned Matt Hancock, the digital and culture minister, who was standing in for Karen Bradley, Prime Minister Theresa May’s minister for media.

Asked whether Bradley would refer the matter to British media regulator Ofcom so that it could rule on whether media plurality would be adversely affected by the deal, Hancock said that as the Fox offer had not been finalized it was too early to comment on this. He added that once Bradley received formal notification of a deal she would have 10 days to respond.

The Conservative Party’s John Whittingdale, a former culture secretary, observed that competition in the U.K. pay-TV market had increased significantly since Rupert Mudoch’s previous attempt to take over Sky in 2010, when Ofcom had approved the takeover, “subject to certain remedies.”

Ed Miliband, who was leader of the Labor Party at the time of the previous takeover bid, reminded the House of Commons that at that time they had passed a motion calling for the government to block the takeover as a response to the phone-hacking scandal involving some of Murdoch’s British tabloids, and in his view “very little” had changed since then in terms of press regulation, so the deal should be rejected again now.

The discussion came as opposition to the proposed deal grew. Michael Lyons, a former chairman of the BBC, said that May ought to refer the matter to Ofcom.

“Is she really interested in a different type of future for this country? If so, she should do anything in her power to resist the further growth in the Murdochs’ grip on news and media,” he told the Observer newspaper.

The Liberal Democrat Party politician Vince Cable, who handled Mudoch’s previous attempt to take over Sky when Cable was the government’s business secretary, said the deal would not be in the public interest.

“This is yet again a threat to media plurality, choice, just as it was six years ago when I referred this to the competition authorities and it should be investigated,” he said. “The ownership of the media, whether you’re looking at press, radio, television, is very highly concentrated, and this makes it even more concentrated.”

Although Murdoch abandoned his bid to take over Sky, or BSkyB, as it was known then, in 2011, the media magnate and his son James, who is Sky’s chairman, have never given up on the idea.

Despite renewed expressions of concern, it is unlikely the deal would be stopped, media analysts say. Following the phone-hacking scandal, Murdoch placed his TV and print assets in separate companies, Fox and News Corp., respectively. This is likely to dispel any unease about a concentration of media power.

“It’s very likely that even if there is a plurality investigation that this will go through,” Claire Enders of Enders Analysis told the BBC. “It is a different situation and the entities have been structured differently.”

Nonetheless, Chris Bryant, a Labor Party lawmaker and its former media spokesman, criticized the deal. “Have we in Britain learned nothing about handing over the largest broadcaster by value and the largest share of newspapers to a single individual? The damage that does in the end to our political system is immense.

“It’s a phenomenal concentration of social and political power and if we let it go through without so much of a by-your-leave, we will rue the day. Again.”

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