The shock closure of the News of the World last week raised a number of pressing questions. One of these was: “What does this mean for the BSkyB bid?” Indeed, the first question asked on that night’s Question Time was whether this represented a “cynical move” to save the £8 billion bid. Hugh Grant voiced popular opinion with one word: “Yes.”
The idea that News of the World was offered as a “sacrificial lamb” seemed like the only logical explanation, from a commercial perspective. This was a widespread view both nationally and internationally, as a friend in Berlin confirmed. Of course, News Corporation also had to be seen to be taking strong disciplinary action in the face of such appalling allegations. Murdoch must have known, though, that taking such an extreme step would be viewed by some as tantamount to an admission of guilt. There must, therefore, have been some compelling justification. We assumed the BSkyB takeover was just that.
As such, yesterday’s developments were unexpected, if not unwelcome. Rupert Murdoch has now abandoned the bid in what has been described as “the biggest single reverse of his career”. This coincided with David Cameron’s announcement that there would be a full public inquiry into “lawbreaking by the press”, led by Lord Justice Leveson. As such, we can extrapolate that Murdoch has given up the bid as a response to mounting pressure from the British government and increasing speculation that they would intervene to prevent Murdoch from acquiring total control of BSkyB. Chase Carey, News Corp’s deputy chairman, has explicitly commented that the bid was now “too difficult to progress in this environment.”
There is a sense that Murdoch jumped before he was pushed, as it is likely that MPs would unanimously have opposed his bid and called for him to withdraw it. Public outcry has been such that any other Parliamentary response would have been politically inconceivable. Another explanation which has been proposed is that he removed the bid to salvage his personal reputation. This seems laughable, in that it implies he had any personal reputation left to salvage.
Whilst this seems like a futile end in its own right, it makes more sense in its wider context. What Murdoch is really hoping to save is not himself per se, but the right to keep broadcasting in the UK. David Aaronovitch addressed this point eloquently at last night’s debate at the LSE, which was entitled “Phone hacking: Is it time to get tough on the press?” He said that whilst he did not “forecast” the loss of other News Corporation titles (including The Times for which he writes), he did recognise that this was a possibility.
The issue of foreign ownership of British newspapers was also addressed both in Parliament and at the LSE event. The Liberal Democrats in particular have been keen to push this angle and to limit the number of foreign nationals who can exert such control over the British press. The real issue here appears to be the independence of the journalists who work within such structures. Serious questions have been asked about how independent editors, such as Rebekah Brooks, can really be if they enjoy such close personal relationships with the newspapers’ proprietors. Commentators such as David Aaronovitch have made the controversial claim that we simply do not have a free press in this country.
These questions have formed part of a more general trend of questioning how the press should be regulated. Recent events and discoveries have made it all too clear that the current system of self regulation simply isn’t working. The Press Complaints Commission has been roundly derided and was described by Ed Miliband as a “toothless poodle”. Journalists and politicians seem to have agreed that the current system is wholly inadequate. Greater intervention, by the government or the judiciary, seems equally unappealing, so we are faced with a serious quandary. The press have proven that they are incapable of regulating themselves, but who else is suited to the role?
All these issues are united by one concern – that too much power should not be aggregated in one place. This has long been recognised as being constitutionally vital for the avoidance of tyranny. The principle of the separation of powers has been lauded for centuries, and expounded by political figures such as Montesquieu. What recent events have shown is that the British public will not stand for the concentration of power in one figure, or in one institution, and nor should they.
Originally published on The Vibe on the 15th July 2011 (http://www.the-vibe.co.uk/2011/07/15/murdoch-abandons-bskyb-bid/)