UK secretary of state for digital culture, media and sport Karen Bradley has pushed back a decision on whether to refer 21st Century Fox’s acquisition of Sky until she has looked at all representations on the matter, but said it was highly likely the bid would be referred to the Competition and Markets Authority on the grounds of media plurality.
Addressing the UK parliament this morning, Bradley said she was “not in a position today to make a final decision on referral”. However, she said that she was still minded to refer on media plurality grounds and not minded to accept Fox’s existing undertakings.
Bradley said she “would take the time I need” to look at all the representations made. However, she said unless further representations were made, “the bid will be referred on one ground: media plurality”.
“Neither of the parties [Fox or Sky] have offered any further or amended undertakings in lieu of referral,” said Bradley.
Bradley said she expected to take a final decision “in the coming weeks, and potentially during the summer recess” – a point that attracted criticism in Parliament from her Opposition shadow, Tom Watson.
Bradley said that she had received representations from 21st Century Fox and a letter from Sky that would be published once a decision had been made. She confirmed she had received a further letter from Fox this week that raised points contesting Ofcom’s public interest assessment justifying referral.
Fox’s lawyers Allen & Overy delivered a letter to Bradley earlier this week that was released to the media, urging her not to delay a decision on the referral and attacking politicians’ demands for a probe on broadcast standards grounds. The move came after a number of senior UK politicians including former Labour leader Ed Miliband, Conservative politician Ken Clarke and prospective Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable wrote to Bradley to complain that Ofcom’s analysis of whether Fox would maintain broadcast standards was flawed.
In reply to Bradley’s statement in Parliament, Watson however said this was “one piece of government indecision that I welcome”. He noted that 21st Century Fox had sent a “somewhat intimidating” letter and urged Bradley to “stand firm” against the Murdochs’ “aggression”.
Referring to the possibility of a decision before the end of the summer recess, Watson however said that Parliament must be in a position to scrutinise any decision take and said that it was not Bradley’s job to “operate to 21st Century Fox’s corporate timetable”.
He said the Murdochs’ corporate behaviour meant there were serious questions over whether Fox was to be trusted on broadcast standards as well as on media plurality. He called for Bradley to move forward with part two of the Leveson enquiry – a planned investigation into the relationship between the press and the police that the ruling Conservative party has previously said it would not go ahead with. Watson said this would enable an investigation of the Murdochs’ practices in the absence of an Ofcom recommendation that the Fox bid raised broadcast standards concerns.
He said that Bradley now had an opportunity to prove that the UK was “a democracy, not a Murdochracy”.
Bradley said that the Ofcom evidence was “clear” on broadcasting standards that “there were no grounds on which I can refer” the bid. However, she said she would look at any new evidence.
Bradley said Ofcom’s ‘fit and proper’ analysis of whether 21st Century Fox was an appropriate holder of a UK broadcast licence was not part of her report. Replying to a point raised by Watson, she said she was “surprised” Ofcom had declined to meet former Labour leader Ed Miliband to discuss the matter and hoped the regulator would take notice of her comments.
21st Century Fox expressed its “disappointment” with Bradley’s decision in a statement.
“In respect of the media plurality public interest consideration, we have proposed comprehensive undertakings to address the points raised by Ofcom. We were pleased Ofcom concluded that these undertakings to maintain the editorial independence of Sky News would mitigate any concerns around media plurality. Consequently, we are disappointed that the Secretary of State remains minded to refer on plurality,” the company said.
Urging Bradley to “complete the regulatory process expeditiously”, it said that the acquisition would “create a global powerhouse well positioned to deliver the very best in content and viewing experiences for customers, while securing the UK’s place as a global player in the creative economy”.