Legal challenge to Ofcom Fox/Sky merger ruling
September 29, 2017
By Colin Mann
Global citizens movement Avaaz has launched what it describes as an “unprecedented” public interest legal challenge to Britain’s broadcasting regulator, filing papers in court seeking a judicial review of Ofcom’s decision to clear the proposed takeover of Sky by 21st Century Fox.
In June 2017, Ofcom found that if Sky was fully owned by Fox, it would still be ‘fit and proper’ to hold a UK broadcasting licence. Avaaz is seeking to have Ofcom’s decision quashed and a new investigation opened. The Murdochs’ bid for Sky TV already faces a wide-ranging 6-month investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
“Repeated, large-scale scandals in the Murdoch empire indicate that something is very rotten at the core of their businesses,” declared Alex Wilks, Avaaz Campaign Director. “Ofcom didn’t dig deep enough before declaring the Murdochs fit to own even more of our media.”
Grounds of Avaaz’s challenge:
Avaaz is challenging the fit and proper decision on four ground:
- Ofcom cleared Fox News, despite the overwhelming evidence put before it by Avaaz and others, of the deliberate gross bias and fake news the channel routinely broadcasts.
- Ofcom made basic factual errors in assessing the sexual and racial harassment scandals at Fox and subsequently rewrote parts of its decision when Avaaz took the first step towards a legal challenge. Both the old and new versions show it failed to assess the efficacy of Fox’s corporate governance policies in stopping large-scale wrongdoing.
- In an earlier Fit and Proper decision in 2012, Ofcom severely criticised James Murdoch’s conduct at News Corporation and found Sky fit to retain a licence only after noting that he had stepped down as chair of Sky. In its 2017 report, Ofcom failed to explain why it was content with James Murdoch’s role as CEO of a merged Fox/Sky, including his assurances on corporate governance.
- Ofcom created an artificial ‘high threshold’, with no basis in law, that enabled the Murdochs’ corporate governance scandals to pass without serious challenge.
Avaaz contends that Ofcom also took assurances given by the Murdochs at face value, despite a history of broken promises. According to Avaaz, the latest examples of Murdoch double-speak are the return of Bill O’Reilly to Fox News as a guest, after he was sacked over sexual harassment allegations at the height of the Ofcom investigation, and claiming commercial considerations for the withdrawal of Fox News from the UK just days before the government’s CMA referral decision.