Sky News was thrown back into the spotlight Tuesday after Britain’s competition watchdog provisionally concluded that a 21st Century Fox takeover of Sky would put too much of the news media in the hands of the Murdoch family. At the same time, London financial regulators are evaluating whether Disney would be obliged to bid for Sky if Disney succeeds in acquiring various Fox assets and if the Fox-Sky deal fails.
The Competition and Markets Authority, or CMA, said that Fox taking full control of Sky “is not in the public interest due to media plurality concerns.” By owning such news organizations as Sky News, the Times of London, and The Sun, the Murdochs would hold sway over outlets accounting for one third of news consumption in Britain.
That seems particularly perilous now in light of reports that Russia tried to interfere in the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election. “The political climate has changed,” said Guy Bisson, research director, at Ampere Analysis. “It would be hard to say giving more control over power of the news to one individual or one organization is a good thing.”
But the CMA also suggested that the Sky News stumbling block might be overcome if the news channel were spun off from the rest of Sky or if safeguards were put in place against editorial meddling by the Murdochs. The competition watchdog noted that News Corp. itself had suggested spinning off Sky News during its previous attempt at taking over Sky in 2011, which was torpedoed by Britain’s phone-hacking scandal.
Media commentator Stewart Purvis, the former boss of news network ITN, said much would depend on how an independent Sky News would be structured both editorially and financially. Despite widespread praise for its news-gathering and meaty reporting, the news channel is a loss-maker.
“The CMA…will focus on how much money Sky would give a spun-off Sky News and how long the deal would be for,” Purvis told Variety. “They will have to sort out the ‘independent’ governance and the issue of compliance – for example, who has the final say on whether a story goes out, and who is accountable to [media regulator] Ofcom for those decisions.”
Even then, spinning off or restructuring Sky News may not be enough to get the Fox-Sky bid over the line, analysts said.
“The initial reaction would be to suggest there is an easy fix in that Sky News could be disposed of, either by sale or closure or some other form. However, the language of the CMA in its provisional findings suggests they are more minded to blocking the deal as a way of addressing concerns,” investment bank Liberum said in a note to investors. In its report, the CMA said that blocking the bid “would represent a comprehensive solution,” one that “poses relatively few risks, compared to other options, in terms of implementation or effectiveness.”
Liberum now puts the chances of the deal collapsing at 40%.
Last November, Fox said it was considering shutting down Sky News altogether in order to expedite the takeover bid. But the statement was denounced by critics who called it an attempt at blackmailing the government to grant approval. Matthew Hancock, the government’s culture and media secretary, said Tuesday that shuttering Sky News in the middle of the bid review process was expressly prohibited.
The CMA now has until May 1 to issue its final report. The preliminary findings released Tuesday are, in substance, broadly the same as those issued by media regulator Ofcom last year. Both identified concerns around “media plurality,” meaning the amount of influence held over news output, but said that 21st Century Fox was in the clear over its commitment to British broadcasting standards.
The activist group Avaaz is still pushing for a full judicial review. For Avaaz and other anti-Murdoch groups, the longer and more drawn-out the approval process is, the better, as they hope more skeletons emerge from the Fox, and specifically the Fox News, closet.
As for what might happen if the Fox-Sky deal is blocked, regulators in London’s financial district, known as the Takeover Panel, said in mid-December they would examine whether Disney would then be obliged to make a full bid for Sky under the so-called “chain principle.”
Disney has told the panel that it does not think the failure of the Fox-Sky takeover would trigger a mandatory bid on its part. But some independent Sky shareholders are likely to push for the Mouse to be forced to bid. The panel’s decision hinges in part on the significance of Sky in the raft of assets that Disney is acquiring as part of its Fox deal. Disney chief Bob Iger has already described Sky as an “amazing platform.”