BBC protests too much

 

Here in the UK a band of rival media owners have written to the Business Secretary, the Lib Dem Vince Cable, urging him to intervene to stop News Corp taking full control of BSkyB should it proceed with its bid.

The letter says News Corp ownership of Sky alongside its existing ownership of The Sun, The News of the Word, The Times and The Sunday Times, between them by far the UK’s largest newspaper stable by circulation, would significantly damage media plurality. Among the signatories of the letter are the heads of the Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, and Mirror newspaper groups, the CEO of Channel 4, the CEO of BT (what’s it got to with them?) and the Director General of the BBC.

News Corp, unsurprisingly, has condemned the move as merely the machinations of commercial rivals. Certainly, all the newspaper groups have an interest in ‘running interference’ on the deal which they fear will increase News Corp’s ability to make cross-platform promotional deals, for example. This is their real ‘complaint’ but this has little to do with the Government as ultimate media ownership rulings now reside with Europe. So they complain about plurality, where the UK administration can intervene.

The BBC, in theory, has no reason to complain about commercial rivalry as it is a publicly funded and, therefore, must have real concerns about plurality. And maybe there are some legitimate concerns, though it is noticeable that the same Ofcom that thought it should intervene on competition grounds to regulate Sky’s wholesale pricing, seemed relaxed about the putative takeover on the grounds that Sky has long been run as if News Corp owned it already.

If I were the BBC I’d want to think and long and hard before getting into too many campaigns and arguments about the stifling of media plurality. Is the BBC is in the business of ‘letting a thousand flowers bloom’? How helpful has BBC online been to the development of multiple independent outlets, what effect has BBC local news online had on the independent local press? Does the fact that the BBC developed YouView has become a de facto standard, and thereby attracted some commercial partners, make it a paragon of plurality? To pretend the market remains open to third party players once the phenomenal promotional power of the BBC has been brought to bear (see iPlayer and Freeview) is simply disingenuous.

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