Business

Will News Corp's bid for Sky be blocked?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on tensions in the UK media landscape

I wrote a few weeks ago that Vince Cable is minded to submit News Corp's planned takeover of BSkyB to Ofcom for review, on the basis that it would diminish so-called "plurality" in the British media (that's "choice" to you and me).

But the business secretary, who is not a political naïf, knows that such a reference to Ofcom would cause strains within the coalition - because before the general election, team Cameron assiduously courted Rupert and James Murdoch, News Corp's dynastic bosses, and won the endorsement for the Tories of News Corp's British newspapers (including the thumbs up that counts most, that of the Sun newspaper).

Which is why I was intrigued to learn that Mr Cable recently said to the bosses of other media groups - or so I am reliably told, by one of them - "give me a reason to refer the bid".

That, I suppose, could be seen either as showing that Mr Cable genuinely has an open mind about the merits of the takeover, and wants as much information as possible before making his formal decision.

Or, for those who believe in conspiracies, it might be seen as a plea to other media groups for political cover, so that as and when Mr Cable does refer the takeover, he's able to say to the prime minister words to the effect of "sorry old chap, I had no choice, look at the pressure on me from the rest of the media industry".

Certainly the unprecedented alliance of the Telegraph Group, Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), Trinity Mirror, Guardian Media Group, the BBC, Channel 4 and BT creates an interesting conundrum for Mr Cameron, if he sees it purely in respect of low and dirty party politics (which I'm sure he won't).

Whose wrath does Mr Cameron most fear - the ire of Tory-supporting News Corp titles, or the wrath of the Telegraph and Mail papers, which also backed the Conservatives?

That said, for me, it's the economic implications of the outbreak of peace between these disparate media groups that is most fascinating.

Because their argument against the takeover by News Corp of Sky is not just about a reduction in plurality, a potential diminution in the number of voices in the media industry.

They are also arguing that News Corp with full control of Sky could become a dominant force in a competition sense, especially in news.

The background to all of this is the belated but rapid convergence of television, print and online news - all of which are coalescing around digital, online delivery. The black rectangular symbol of this coalescence is the iPad and its fast-multiplying tablet imitators.

What the Telegraph and DMGT, in particular, have noticed is that only a combined News Corp and Sky have all the bits: the TV, the online, the print.

What's more, Sky is poised to generate mind-boggling quantities of cash, according to analysts, which could be used to invest in the digitally converged delivery of news, at a time when most other news groups remain seriously strapped for cash.

In other words, News Corp is likely to have to fight two very tough and separate regulatory battles to secure Sky, as and when it formally notifies the authorities of its formal intention to bid.

First, it will have to make its case to Ofcom that the deal won't dangerously reduce plurality.

Second, its hope that it would easily win the competition arguments, as and when the Brussels competition authorities start to investigate, well, that hope may well be dashed. There must even be some prospect that aspects of the competition case could be repatriated to the UK, for scrutiny by the domestic competition authorities.

Perhaps the biggest problem for News Corp is that there is a clamour of voices shouting that the deal must be blocked, but very little public argument in favour of the takeover.

It would have helped News Corp's cause if British Sky Broadcasting and its respected chief executive, Jeremy Darroch, could stand up in public and argue the merits of combining his company with News Corp.

But he can't do that, because News Corp refused to pay the £8 per share price demanded by Sky's independent directors. Unless and until News Corp and Sky reach a concord on the price of the takeover, Mr Darroch and his colleagues cannot campaign for the takeover.

All of which, for the first time, makes me think that there is a chance that - after all the noise has subsided and the dust has settled - News Corp's ambition to raise its holding in Sky from 39% to 100% may yet be frustrated.‬‪

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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