Vince hands BSkyB to Murdoch on a platter

December 21, 2010

It would appear the Scourge of Capitalism (aka business secretary Vince Cable) was bent on doing exactly what I earlier predicted. That is, committing a gross act of hypocrisy – in the clandestine manner of the bankers he so despises – by rigging the market to get the result he wanted.

This is the only reasonable interpretation of his unguarded remarks to two Telegraph undercover reporters about “declaring war on Mr Murdoch”. He is of course referring to his supposedly impartial role in adjudicating the acceptability of NewsCorp’s bid for the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. For the avoidance of doubt the guileless minister of the crown went on to explain to the two reporters – posing as constituents: “I have blocked it [the bid] using the powers that I have got and they are legal powers that I have got…”.

Actually, that last bit is a tad premature. Ofcom is not supposed to report back on whether there is a prima facie case for referral to the Competition Commission until December 31st. But Vince was clearly confident that he had Ofcom in his pocket and could press ahead with a referral on the public interest grounds of an infringement of “media plurality”. The beauty of such grounds is that they reside entirely in the realm of political value judgement rather than the rigorously factual analysis of any threat to competition. And given that Cable would have had the final word, Murdoch & Co were clearly going to be thwarted.

No longer. Vince is off the case (indeed, he is off any adjudication of media competition cases from now on), although he has narrowly managed to retain his job. And culture media and sport secretary Jeremy Hunt will take his place. As a Tory, Hunt does not carry Cable’s Lib Dem ideological baggage; and if he does harbour any personal animosity towards the Murdoch clan it has so far remained scrupulously off the record.

Which is just as well. In the circumstances he will find it politically excruciating to deliver the thumbs down. The European Commission has just waved through the bid on competition grounds. That leaves the public interest argument. But this, too, is looking increasingly shaky when assessed on any fair-minded basis – as it will have to be in the wake of Cablegate. The legal precedent was set when the last government forcibly caused BSkyB to divest most of its 18% stakeholding in ITV. Ironically, the stated grounds were that NewsCorp’s then 39% holding in BSkyB posed a threat to UK media plurality. If you’re already a threat to media plurality when you hold a controlling 39% interest in a company, how is owning the rest of the shares going to make a material difference?

As political fiascos go, this is a corker. The Scourge of Capitalism has ended up performing a humiliating act of public self-flagellation. In the process, he has damaged Ofcom’s independence and almost certainly brought about the result he most feared: the strengthening of Rupert Murdoch’s commercial interests.

En passant, he has also damaged The Telegraph – one of his allies in the Murdoch matter, if no other; although Cable can hardly be blamed for that. The Telegraph deliberately suppressed Cable’s anti-Murdoch comments, presumably on the grounds that they harmed its commercial interests. Only because some nameless Assangeite felt that editorial integrity had been inexcusably compromised did the scoop come into the capable hands of BBC business editor Robert Peston.

I bet they’re laughing up their sleeves at Osterley Park and Wapping. I can’t say I blame them.


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