Gerson Zweifach, group general counsel of 21st Century Fox, has suggested that certain UK politicians have a political agenda in respect of the company’s bid to acquire the 61 per cent of Sky it does not already own, accusing them of seeking to enlist regulators in a political war.
Writing an opinion piece in the Financial Times, Zweifach says the bid reflects Fox’s proud history of investing in British creative industries and its financial support of Sky over the 28 years since it was founded. “Together with Sky, we spent £700 million on UK television and film production in 2016 alone,” he notes.
“Despite our co-operation with competition authorities, their review of our bid has been under sustained political assault,” he claims. “Businesses coming to the UK expect objective treatment by the government. That expectation helps make the country one of the most attractive places in the world for commerce. The sustained effort by some to politicise the Sky review should raise concerns not only for those who want to invest in the UK but, more fundamentally, for all who cherish the rule of law,” he suggests.
“British regulators must make sure there is a sufficient plurality in the control of media enterprises and news provision,” he accepts. “They are examining whether the Sky purchase would cause a problem because the Murdoch family are substantial shareholders in both Fox and News Corp, which owns three UK newspapers. The historical record is straightforward. Fox and its predecessor have been the sole, and then Sky’s largest, shareholder since its creation. Murdochs have served as Sky’s chief executive, chairman and on its board of directors. News Corp’s UK newspapers have reported and commented on all manner of political controversies. No one from Fox, News Corp or the Murdoch family has ever tried to compromise Sky News’s editorial independence. Those facts are undisputed,” he asserts.
“Fox participated in a thorough review process with media regulator Ofcom, and offered undertakings that editorial independence at Sky would not change following the bid,” he advises. “Ofcom concluded nine months ago that our commitments would mitigate concerns about UK media plurality. That is when politicians with personal grudges pressured the authorities to delay and defeat the bid. They have pressed the Competition and Markets Authority to block the bid — whatever the cost to Sky’s shareholders,” he claims.
According to Zweifach, a panel of politicians has urged a transparently political agenda. “They railed about Mr Murdoch’s acquisition of The Times in 1981; proclaimed their disappointment that the Leveson review after the phone hacking scandal failed to place the Murdochs and others under the control of a press regulator; and urged the CMA to see its mission as more than plurality. They are seeking to enlist the regulators in a political war,” he declares.
“Now Fox has offered two further proposals to safeguard Sky News’s independence. One would place it under the control of a separate company, with an independent board exclusively responsible for both Sky News’s editorial content and its commercial strategy. Fox would guarantee its funding for 15 years. We have also offered undertakings that Fox and the Murdochs will not attempt to influence the editorial choices of the head of Sky News,” he confirms.
“This was an easy commitment to make: the Murdochs have never engaged in such conduct since they created Sky News. If this proposal is insufficient, we have offered another option: Sky News would become part of a separate company owned by Disney, which has the resources and expertise to maintain its tradition of independence,” he advises.
“Fox’s bid never presented a threat to media plurality. Our purpose has always been to further invest in the world-class UK business that we founded, and provide it with the resources to thrive. We have every expectation that the CMA and the culture secretary will bring this protracted process to a conclusion and make clear that the UK’s commitment to the rule of law cannot be compromised. Fox’s proposals more than suffice to preserve the editorial independence of a news service that we created and cherish,” he concludes.