Opposition mounts to News Corp's bid for BSkyB

  • 7 July 2011
  • From the section Business
  • comments
Jeremy Hunt Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The culture secretary was given responsibility for deciding on the deal at the beginning of the year

In less than a week, Jeremy Hunt has received 100,000 submissions about News Corp's bid for BSkyB - almost all of them opposed to the bid.

The sheer volume of submissions means the culture secretary will not make his final definitive ruling on whether the takeover should be allowed for many weeks, probably not till September.

In that sense, the protesters, led by the campaigning group Avaaz, have done Mr Hunt something of a favour - because the last thing he wants to do is approve the takeover in the current highly charged climate.

Update, 15:55: I was fascinated that in the House of Lords debate today, Lord Puttnam said that he believed Jeremy Hunt as culture secretary could intervene to block News Corporation's bid to own all of BSkyB, on the grounds News Corp would not be a "fit-and-proper" owner (in the light of the recent revelations about conduct at the News of the World).

The reason his remarks stood out is that he was the architect of the relevant provisions of the enterprise and broadcasting acts.

But Jeremy Hunt is persuaded, on the advice of his lawyers, that Lord Puttnam is wrong.

It is true that Mr Hunt has the power to vet any takeover of a broadcaster on the basis of whether the new owner would be fit and proper, or whether the takeover would restrict "plurality" (broadly choice and diversity of media).

But there can only be one review, Mr Hunt's officials say - and that is always launched after the relevant company, in this case Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, formally announces its intention to make an offer.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Advertisers may take their business to other News International titles

And once the terms of that review are set, these officials add, they cannot be changed.

In the case of News Corp's proposed offer for BSkyB, the terms of the review were set at the end of last year by Vince Cable, as business secretary (before he was stripped of his media responsibilities). And Mr Cable restricted the scrutiny to the impact of the planned takeover on plurality.

The question of whether News Corp is a fit-and-proper owner was not part of the terms of reference.

That means, according to the culture department, Mr Hunt is now unable to consider whether News Corp is fit and proper in determining whether the bid should be allowed.

He has been told by his lawyers that News Corp will sue him, and win, if he now tries to change the terms of reference, to encompass a fit-and-proper test.

Green light

So, in case you haven't guessed by now, this means that when Mr Hunt delivers his verdict on the takeover - which won't be September, as I mentioned earlier - he will do so only the basis of its effect on plurality.

And since he has already made public his view that the takeover should be allowed on those grounds (subject to safeguards for the independence of Sky News) it is reasonable to assume that he will give the green light to News Corp buying BSkyB (though he knows that when he does so, the public outcry will be something to behold).

Or to put it another way, Mr Hunt might whisper that if you want to blame someone, as and when he allows the takeover to proceed, blame Mr Cable.

Update, 16:20: I am told that some of the companies that are pulling their advertising from the News of the World are shifting it to its sister daily paper, the Sun.

Which raises an interesting question.

If the News of the World as a brand is so badly damaged, so irrevocably associated with journalistic behaviour viewed by the public as despicable, perhaps - as part of its rehabilitation - it should be renamed.

The obvious new name for it would be the Sunday Sun.

Now my sources at News International tell me that such a name change is not being discussed right now. But they don't say it won't ever be.