Shooting Foxes

There is an old English saying derived from hunting: ‘You’ve shot my fox’. It means one’s whole plan, or whole story, has been undercut by one or more unexpected action.

The Murdochs, as owners of 21st Century Fox, have been busy shooting everyone’s foxes this week. The narrative was that after exhaustive tracking, and several attempts, Fox finally had its prey – Sky – trapped and would likely succeed in bringing it to ground.

The only thing in its way was the wholly justified squeamishness of the UK regulators about plurality and, more particularly, whether the Murdochs were ‘fit and proper’ to own a major UK broadcaster outright (they already own 39 per cent). The government’s concern is focused on Fox News – Ofcom this week condemned it for a crass lack of objectivity in its coverage of the Manchester bomb attacks – and the danger that Sky News, a respected news organisation, could be turned into the kind headbanger freak show Fox News has made such a success of.

Fox, of course, says no. But now, it says: ‘well, if you won’t believe us, we’ll just close Sky News and have done with it’. This would suit Sky and Fox shareholders – News loses a lot of money. It is only Rupert Murdoch’s addiction to news – both full-fact and fact-free – that has seen Sky’s commitment to news continue.

Murdoch must now be enjoying the delicious irony of the ructions his (probably empty) threat has caused. He has said: “If you think I’m not fit to run a news station then I’ll close it. You can deal with the consequence that that much reduces plurality in news – the exact consequence you are supposed to be trying to avoid – yourselves.”

Just as we were digesting the corpse of that fox, so to speak, another fox isn’t so much shot as obliterated. This is the leak that 21st Century Fox has been touting its assets to Disney. Murdoch senior has never been a seller, but equally he has said many times of late that vast scale is going to be needed to take on the Silicon Valley players in media.
Fox is no bit part player, but it is only one third the size of Disney, which in turn could do with more guns and ammunition as it plans its assault in the OTT consumer and takes on Netflix and Amazon.

Of course, there are many rivers to cross; both own a US national TV network and would likely have to drop one, and Disney is founded on family values, so Fox News and its recent sex scandals might cause a stink. But there is logic in the need for scale and there aren’t many other candidates around.

One theory is that this is all just elaborate smoke signals intended to lure back into play the previous Fox prey – Time Warner. There are some indications its deal with AT&T – made after it rejected Fox approaches – will meet too much regulatory opposition to succeed. Where will TW turn then? Both Fox and Disney will be polishing their shot guns.

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