By Dave Osler
If there is a qualitative difference between having a dominant interest in BSkyB and outright ownership of the satellite broadcaster, it pretty much escapes me. But Rupert Murdoch has decided that outright ownership is what he wants, and, until a few days ago, that was exactly what it looked like he was going to get.
This is a man who has for decades played a role in British politics that illustrates perfectly the radical left critique of parliamentary democracy. To rewrite an old anarchist slogan: whoever you vote for, News International gets in.
Not only does the company have a perceived ability to make or break governments. In addition, Murdoch’s family and his senior executives go to expensive lengths to build personal friendships with top politicians. That leaves a small clique effectively able to write the laws under which its interests operate.
Coverage of the so-called Chipping Norton Set suggests that little has changed since the hey-day of the Cliveden Set under Macmillan. Need something sorted? Bring it up next time Dave and Sam pop round for supper. Welcome to the world of face-to-face class politics, complete with good food and a bottle or two of jolly appreciable claret.
Nor does Murdoch influence stop at such quotidian questions as media ownership restrictions. Although only those present at the relevant meetings between him and Tony Blair will ever know for sure, it is widely believed that one reason Britain did not join the euro is that a certain Australian-born US citizen told the prime minister that his newspapers would campaign against the proposal if it ever went to a referendum.
That this proved the correct call is not the point here. Prime ministers are supposed to take such decisions on the basis of what is best for the economy, not at the behest of a man who is neither an individual nor a corporate taxpayer in this country, and who would not be directly affected one way or the other by the outcome.
When News Corp last year tabled a £8.2bn offer for the BSkyB shares it does not already own, most Conservative politicians would happily have let it go through on the nod, despite the round robin from the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the BBC and others, decrying the implications for media pluralism.
Although Vince Cable insisted that the bid be referred to OfCom, shall we just observe that the regulator does not have a reputation for undue stridency. There was every expectation that the deal would happen.
That was before the News of the World hacking revelations. The growing backlash from this scandal meant that Murdoch was forced to back down, marking his first significant setback in this country since he was refused permission to buy Manchester United in 1999. But don’t forget that Murdoch retains de facto control, whatever happens.
As a result, the politics of media ownership are back in play for the first time in two decades, and, given the changes in the media landscape since then, it probably would not hurt for the left to give that matter some fresh thought.
Labour Party policy under Kinnock was to seek to place tight caps on the proportion of aggregate national newspaper circulation that one group could control, and restrict cross-ownership of print and broadcast media. But is even that enough?
And while we are on the subject, we should also be asking how it is that we have been left with no widely read democratic socialist publications whatsoever? Or even a high profile website?
The real challenge will be not to put a temporary check on Murdoch’s avarice in this one instance, but to cut down his power to the extent that it is no longer an absolute check on political vision.