This Friday was meant to draw to a close Rupert Murdoch’s dogged pursuit of British Sky Broadcasting. The final consultation over, everyone expected the broadcaster to finally fall into the hands of News Corp – on the condition that the media mogul spins off the Sky News service as a separate company.
The phone hacking scandal has thrown News Corp’s pursuit of BSkyB back into the lion pit. Ed Miliband demanded today that the government refer the bid to the Competition Commission to a chorus of approval from MPs in the Commons.
But on what grounds? The subjects of phone hacking within Murdoch’s newspaper empire and his desire to buy BSkyB are totally separate issues, however much parliament might wish it otherwise. Hunt has to take the decision on BSkyB on the terms of media plurality only and Murdoch has already addressed such concerns over months of negotiations with Hunt and Ofcom by agreeing to spin off Sky News.
Miliband’s call may be politically expedient, but it is in practical terms a non-starter: this far into the process, Hunt will struggle to convince a judicial review that he has suddenly found grounds to refer the deal on plurality issues.
Downing Street are rumoured to be scrambling around trying to find some sort of loophole to kick the decision into the long grass, well aware that any perceived positive treatment of Murdoch in the current climate is political suicide.
One lawyer told me that there could be a little bit of wriggle room: “What you might try to do is work some undertakings relating to future conduct of the business around general integrity and if you were being really creative you could argue that in light of the hacking revelations you want to re-consult. They could come up with something but it is still pretty risky.”
But Whitehall insiders are gloomy and complain they are boxed in. So, with no obvious legal way out, Hunt has only one other option – sit on it for a couple of weeks. Murdoch may not like it, but given the maelstrom engulfing his newspapers and the government over this issue, both men might be grateful for just a little bit of breathing space.