The rise of Murdoch’s empire in the UK and the challenge of pluralism

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News Corporation’s bid to fully acquire British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) will be given the green light by the UK Government. On 3 March, Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, said he believes that the undertakings from News Corp “will address concerns about media plurality”, thus paving the way towards the merger.

These undertakings concern News Corp’s offer to spin-off Sky News as an independent public limited company. It’s an offer that has been made with the specific aim to address the plurality concerns raised by Ofcom (the UK communications regulator) in a report published in January. After conducting an analysis of the case, Ofcom stated “it is reasonable to believe that the proposed acquisition may be expected to operate against the public interest since there may not be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of media enterprises providing news and current affairs to UK-wide cross media audiences”. Due to the fact that Ofcom’s analysis draws a clear link between media plurality and news provision, News Corp’s offer to spin-off Sky News seems to be a sufficient solution to clear the deal.

In order to ensure editorial independence and integrity in news reporting, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport says the new Sky News “would have a board made up of a majority of independent directors, including an independent chair, and a corporate governance and editorial committee made up of independent directors (who would have no other News Corporation interests). News Corporation would not be allowed to increase its shareholding in the new company without permission from the Secretary of State for 10 years”.

The rise of an empire
Even if the Culture Secretary opened a 15-day consultation on the proposal, the decision seems to be taken. That means that in a couple of weeks Rupert Murdoch’s company – which already owns The Sun, The Times, The News of the World, and accounts for one third of the UK’s newspaper circulation – will be allowed to negotiate with BSkyB’s board the acquisition of the 61% of the TV broadcaster it does not already own.

Nevertheless, there are still concerns about the deal. According to The Guardian, the alliance between News Corp’s rival media companies – including the Telegraph Media Group and The Guardian Media Group – considered the proposal a “complete whitewash” that will give Murdoch “a dangerous level of control of the UK media”.

Separating news from other media content
Furthermore, the issues of assessing media plurality and implementing effective regulations still prove to be challenging. Over the last two months, a couple of seminars at City University and the London School of Economics gathered many experts who raised several unanswered questions, in an attempt to enlighten the current situation.

One point raised is whether pluralism should be assessed by taking into account broad media content or only news. In assessing news, which is the approach adopted by Ofcom, it becomes trick when separating news content within each TV channel or even within single newspapers or magazines.

Building news agendas
A second broad issue concerns the process of building news agendas and the different roles played by media in this process. Since the proposed merger would combine a TV broadcaster with the first UK print media group, it is worth analysing where the power of influencing public opinion actually lies. While Ofcom’s approach treats every media equally, the relationship between TV and newspapers seems to be more complex, with TV journalists often relying on newspapers in the process of setting the news agenda.

Competition rules and cross-media ownership
A final set of questions include legal and economic arguments. On the one hand, as highlighted by Professor Martin Cave at the LSE seminar, competition law applied to media plurality has “huge limitations” – essentially due to its extreme reduction to market indicators which do not embrace the entire dimension of pluralism.

On the other hand, the link between ownership and pluralism of information has yet to be completely proven and still requires further analysis. Specifically, the issue of cross-media ownership, as the case of News Corp/BSkyB shows, will play a critical role in the incoming scenario, where digitalisation of information has been blurring traditional media boundaries and the legal barriers to acquisition of different types of media must be redefined.

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