Ofcom: wrong question, wrong answer

In the few hours since Jeremy Hunt announced his non-decision on referral of the News bid for BSkyB – Hunt (and Number 10) remain desperate to sit on the fence – the war of words that has broken out between News and Ofcom wouldn’t be out of place at a prize fight press conference.

Barely bothering to cover their sentiment in business speak or legalese, News basically says Ofcom has enthusiastically taken part in a stitch up devised by Vince Cable the Business Secretary, and was always going to recommend a referral to the Competition Commission no matter what the evidence and no matter what News said.

Unfortunately for Ofcom the evidence that there was prejudice comes from the Minister’s own mouth and Ofcom is left to defend its integrity despite what the relevant Minister said or thought at the time of the referral.

Of course Cable’s blab that he was ‘at war’ with Murdoch was always going to be an open goal and some off-stage arm twisting (of the PM no less) has won News a reprieve to come up with some guarantees to assuage the Government’s media plurality concerns.

Once these guarantees are offered (and I’d take four to one on they’ll satisfy the Government) there will be 15 days of consultation with interested parties. All of those with a view will be Sky / News International competitors and I’ll take nine to one on they’ll all rubbish the guarantees and demand a referral. And if they don’t get one they’ll go for Judicial Review.

The problem here is the wrong regulator is considering the wrong question and coming up with the answer to the question it wanted to be asked not the one that it was. The objections (some potentially quite legitimate) to the deal are all really on Competition grounds not Plurality grounds. But Competition belongs to Europe and so now those concerns are being shoe horned out of shape to fit the Plurality question and in the process are being shorn of all credibility.

The focus has been on Sky News – will it remain independent and of good quality? Does anyone really think The Mirror, The Mail and The Telegraph give an airborne fornication about that? Of course not. What they are scared of is a Sky/News International subscriber proposition that includes broadband, TV, voice and newspaper content, however consumed. Make the deal good enough and that could steal readers from all of them – and that’s a commodity they can’t afford to lose any more of. But this is a Competition concern – unless they are saying News will be so powerful and so good at this it will soon shut us down (I suppose The Mirror might have a point here).

To dress these concerns up as a worry about the poor TV news consumer and his plurality of options is ridiculous and faintly insulting. Has any rival ever wanted to or tried to do a news channel (I don’t count LiveTV)? No. Would any of them want to buy Sky News to preserve its quality and independence? No. Does Sky have a powerful hand when it says ‘if worries about what we do with Sky News are what is stopping this deal going through, fine; we’ll shut it,’, yes it does. I’m sure someone will think of a regulation against that too.

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