Say what you like about BBC director-general Mark Thompson (and some do find him a bit antenna-challenged), he’s doughty in defence.
Having got his hands on a big stick to club his bete noire and tormentor James Murdoch at this year’s MacTaggart Lecture, he’s now taken the media war to Murdoch Snr’s “home” terrain by very publicly wading into the “Stop Murdoch getting Sky at any price” debate on America’s normally unremarkable public service television network (PBS). Thompson told the Charlie Rose programme that giving Murdoch what he wanted – the other 61% of BSkyB – would result in “a significant loss of plurality in our media market” and the “potential of an abuse of power.” In effect, it’s the old “Silvio Berlusconi” caricature – lovingly etched by Claire Enders – being given a new lease of life.
Whether a wholly-owned Murdoch Sky would really lead to an abuse of power I have no idea; beyond mentioning what people seem to conveniently forget in this debate – Murdoch’s imploding newspaper revenues. But the truth of the matter is less important than its plausible representation. And here – hats off – I must admire Thompson the tactician. Intelligently using the fewer resources at his disposal he has turned attack into the best form of defence. Like some latter-day Stonewall Jackson.
What Thompson has scented is a definitive change in the balance of UK media power which he is exploiting to the BBC’s advantage. It cannot have escaped notice that the regulatory authorities – prodded by the politicians – are spending an increasing amount of their time pursuing alleged abuses of BSkyB’s power – as instanced by investigations into its significant stake in ITV, and its control of premium sport and film content. What juicier opportunity to get politicians frothing at the mouth than pointing up the imminent prospect of Murdoch getting his hands on all of Sky’s £6bn revenues and £950m cashflow? Thompson nicely emphasised what’s at stake in his MacTaggart Lecture when he suggested Sky’s marketing budget alone dwarfs what ITV spends on its programmes. It now appears he has made common cause on the matter of Murdoch’s overweening power with some very odd bedfellows indeed: just about every other newspaper proprietor in the country.
And while the media and the politicians are diverted by the prospect of one long, uninterrupted, Murdoch-bashing fest, who’s going to be bothering with such pettifogging issues as bloated budgets, out-of-touch management, abuse of the internet media market and pension funds running amok at the BBC? Which should make for a fairly uninterrupted run-up to the next licence-fee negotiations.