James Murdoch said Thursday he was confident 21st Century Fox’s bid to take over Sky would survive a more extensive regulatory review requested by the British government, adding that he was happy “we have a clock on this now.”
“Obviously we were disappointed” by the government’s decision to call in the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority to examine the $15 billion takeover bid, Murdoch said. “But we’re also looking forward to engaging with the CMA….We’re confident that it goes through.”
Murdoch’s comments at the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge, England, came just hours after British Culture Secretary Karen Bradley confirmed she would ask the CMA to investigate whether Fox and the Murdoch family would exercise too much power in British media following a merger with Sky and whether they would adhere to local broadcasting standards. The competition authority’s review is expected to take six months. Fox says it is confident that the deal will close by the end of next June.
“The CMA has to get its work done,” Murdoch said. “We’re ready to give them a lot of information. We’ll see what issues they identify and what they do.”
He noted that British regulator Ofcom had already concluded after months of evaluation that Fox would be a “fit and proper” owner of Sky that would uphold broadcasting standards.
Bradley had previously said she was inclined to have the CMA look only at media plurality issues and would accept Ofcom’s conclusion on the standards question. But on Tuesday she told lawmakers that she had changed her mind and would disregard Ofcom’s advice, instead ordering a full review of the merger on grounds of both plurality and adherence to British broadcasting principles. The recent allegations of sexual and racial harassment at Fox News and accusations of faulty, biased reporting contributed to Bradley’s change of heart.
Last month, Sky pulled Fox News from its platform, a decision widely seen as an attempt to smooth the path of the takeover bid.
Asked onstage in Cambridge about fears that Sky News – which is widely lauded for its fairness and impartiality – would become “Fox News with British accents,” Murdoch said the two markets, the U.S. and U.K., were completely different. Fox News is “entirely designed for an American audience,” an audience that finds value in “political polemic” by such opinionated figures as Sean Hannity, John Oliver and Rachel Maddow, Murdoch said. “That’s a very different competitive dynamic and different circumstances from here.”
He said Fox News had fewer than 2,000 viewers in Britain. “It was just not a commercial decision that made any sense” to keep it on air, Murdoch said.
The Fox chief defended his company’s reaction to accusations of wrongdoing. “There’s always things that are going to go wrong,” he said. “The question is how do you respond to it, can you front up to it. With Fox News we learned about bad behavior, sexual harassment, and the key issue for me was, what are the facts and how do we react to them in the right way?”
Murdoch said the first Fox heard of the allegations against Roger Ailes was a New York Times story detailing allegations against the then Fox News chief. “We looked at it, we hired an independent outside law firm to investigate it, we looked at the allegations and in less than two weeks we made a decision and we had to move on from Roger Ailes. That was actually not that hard a decision, what he did was wrong and you have to say it clear and loud, that is unacceptable behavior.”
Sharon White, the head of Ofcom, defended her agency’s recommendations that a fuller investigation of Fox’s commitment to abide by local broadcasting standards was not warranted, despite Bradley’s ultimate decision to the contrary. Speaking in Cambridge before Murdoch, she said that her agency had conducted its evaluation of Fox with “the utmost care. It’s been a very, very detailed, very rigorous process.”
Asked whether the competition authority would come to different conclusions after its own review, White said: “I don’t know if they will.”
Rupert Murdoch has long wanted to own all of of Sky, beyond the 39% stake Fox currently owns. Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s executive chairman, said this week that acquisition of Sky was the company’s “No. 1 priority.”