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Clever or cowardly? Before too long we will know about Jeremy Hunt

2011 January 26
by Paul Vallely

It may be that Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, is being very clever. He may be being tactical in his decision to give Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp another six months to modify its bid to buy the broadcaster BSkyB. He may want to ensure that Mr Murdoch has no grounds for a legal challenge when the deal is eventually referred to the Competition Commission.

On the other hand it may also be that the Conservative party is so craven in its fawning upon Rupert Murdoch – whose four national newspapers are widely said to be able to delivery electoral victory – that it puts the best interests of party before nation. Certainly that is how many people will see it.

The phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World has raised questions about the propriety of the Murdoch press, much as the blatant political bias of Fox News in America has raised questions about whether democracy is safe in his hands. But the central issue here is whether it is in the public interest that Mr Murdoch should take control of the 61 per cent of BSkyB which he does not already own.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom has clearly ruled that there is a risk if control of the news is in too few hands. If the deal is approved, it has warned, 51 per cent of Britons will be getting their news from a Murdoch source as against 32 per cent now. That is why it wants the bid referred to the Competition Commission.

News Corp’s lawyers are now arguing, on what seem largely spurious grounds, that Ofcom’s report is biased. There is certainly the suspicion of bias around in plenty. Just days after David Cameron stripped the anti-Murdoch Vince Cable of the power to decide on referral the prime minister went to a Christmas dinner at the home of News International’s chief executive, at which Mr Murdoch’s son James was present. Jeremy Hunt, who was told to take the decision in place of Mr Cable, has a track record of pro-Murdoch comments and has had a number of private unminuted meetings with Murdoch executives with no civil servants present.

In such circumstances an immediate referral of the bid to the Competition Commission is the only sure way of ensuring that private bias does not turn into public favours.

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