Is the sky the limit?
Now that Rupert Murdoch’s bid for complete control of Sky has been formally notified to the European Commission, the pressure is on the secretary of state, Karen Bradley, to decide whether it should be referred to the regulator Ofcom for independent investigation.
Nearly six years ago, in July 2011, Murdoch was forced to withdraw an identical bid in the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal. Addressing a packed House of Commons in the midst of the public and parliamentary outcry, David Cameron explicitly referred to the abuses of power that come with too much concentration of media ownership. He warned that “never again should we let a media group get too powerful”.
Very little has changed in the intervening six years to justify a change of heart. Those seeking to persuade Bradley that she should wave the transaction through argue that Murdoch domination is a thing of the past and that we are “awash” with news and information sources. They ignore – either wilfully or naively – the potential yet again for reducing plurality and consolidating one family’s power and influence.
Power over policy
There are broadly three dimensions to that power. First, there is increased influence over government ministers, parliamentarians, senior civil servants, regulators and others responsible for developing and implementing public policy. Ofcom explicitly embraced this meaning of power when it defined one of the two overarching principles of plurality as “preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda [my italics]”.
Analysis by the pressure group the Media Reform Coalition of meetings between Murdoch and his senior executives and senior government ministers demonstrated that they met 20 times in the 18 months from April 2015 to September 2016 – including ten meetings with the prime minister or chancellor. A further eight were with the culture secretary. The sheer scale of such direct access to government – exceeding by far that of every other media organisation – can only be exacerbated by this takeover.
Evidence from senior politicians to the Leveson Inquiry provided abundant evidence of how unduly powerful media corporations influence policy and regulatory decisions by exerting pressure on governments.
Four successive prime ministers admitted, either implicitly or explicitly, that they were bound too closely to News Corporation and to Murdoch. When the same company is seeking to consolidate and expand its sphere of influence through complete control over one of the most influential broadcasters in the country, the potential consequences demand independent scrutiny.
Impact on news agendas
Established newspaper brands also have considerable power to set news agendas both for broadcasters and for online news sites which have limited newsgathering resources. There is evidence from both the 2015 general election and the 2016 EU referendum that broadcasters were heavily influenced by the front page editorialising of the UK’s press.
High-profile broadcasters have made the same point: in June 2014, while at the BBC, Robert Peston expressed frustration at the way in which BBC News was, in his view: “completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers”. John Ryley, head of Sky News, supported Peston’s view a week later: “I have always been shocked from the very first time I started in [TV] news at the reliance on newspapers.”
Newspaper reviews now proliferate on political programmes and across news channels, while Sky News, the BBC and ITV all tweet the front pages of next day’s national newspapers. The new breed of online publication such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Vice News are rarely mentioned. Broadcast agendas are therefore dominated by daily print publications, where News Corporation titles still hold a commanding position.
This can only be exacerbated where the same owner becomes entirely responsible for the editorial output of Sky News as well as – following its acquisition by News Corporation – the national commercial radio station TalkSport.
Impact on plurality
With the dramatic reduction of print advertising– and with digital advertising increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook – commercial sustainability of news media will depend increasingly on paid relationships (subscriptions or pay per access). Full acquisition of Sky will enhance Fox and News Corp’s power to combine with Sky to offer discounted subscriptions and maximise revenues through direct payment, thereby putting independent competitors at a major disadvantage and potentially driving them out of business.
These economies of scale will be further enhanced by Sky’s platform as the second-largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the UK. At the moment, all ISPs are covered by European rules of net neutrality which prevent them from engaging in differential pricing. Once these rules are repatriated to the UK, it is entirely possible that Ofcom will come under pressure from Fox and News Corp to abandon the principle of net neutrality, thereby allowing Sky customers privileged cheaper access to Fox and News Corp media products. The consequences for plurality across all genres of media output – from news and information to TV drama and film – could be profound.
Almost exactly five years after Cameron’s impassioned speech to the Commons, his successor stood on the steps of Downing Street and said: “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. When we take the big calls we’ll think not of the powerful but you.” The decision by Theresa May’s culture secretary on whether to refer the Fox bid to Ofcom will be an early test of whether she is prepared to put the public interest before her own political interest.
This article was written by Steven Barnett – [Professor of Communications, University of Westminster]