Friday 13 December 2019

Nick Clegg challenges Rupert Murdoch on BSkyB

James Tapsfield and Joe Churcher

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg today stepped up the pressure on Rupert Murdoch, urging him to reconsider his takeover bid for broadcaster BSkyB.

Mr Clegg appealed to the media mogul to do the "decent and sensible thing" and think again in the light of the latest disclosures in the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

His intervention came after Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced he was seeking fresh advice from the regulator Ofcom and from the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) on whether he should refer the bid to the Competition Commission.

The move prompted a sharp fall in the BSkyB share price which dropped a further 6% to around 700p.

Following a meeting with the parents of Milly Dowler - the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was allegedly hacked by the newspaper while police were searching for her - Mr Clegg said Mr Murdoch should consider the widespread revulsion the disclosures had caused.

"Do the decent and sensible thing, and reconsider, think again, about your bid for BSkyB," he urged the News Corp chief.

"I would simply say to him, 'look how people feel about this, look how the country has reacted with revulsion to the revelations'.

"Listening to Bob, Sally and Gemma Dowler, it reminds you that it is innocent families like them who have paid a very heavy price for truly grotesque journalistic practices, which are simply beneath contempt."

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt said he wanted to take further independent advice from Ofcom and the OFT before taking a final decision on whether to give Mr Murdoch bid to take majority control of BSkyB the green light.

"You wouldn't be human if you weren't totally appalled with some of the revelations that have come to light. They are just stomach-churning and I think everyone feels totally shaken," he said.

"The question is whether there are things there that are relevant to the decision that I have to take which is a merger decision. What I have to look at is concentration of media ownership. That's what I want to seek independent advice on."

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who warned at the weekend that he was prepared to force a Commons vote on whether the bid should go ahead, said the Culture Secretary was being forced to backtrack.

He stressed that Mr Hunt had ignored the original advice from Ofcom which was that the takeover bid for BSkyB should be referred to the Competition Commission.

"The Government, having repeatedly said there was no alternative to their flawed process, now appears to be moving towards my position," he told a news conference in London.

"They are doing it not because they want to, but because they have been forced to. Let me be clear: this chaos and confusion in government is all of their own making. They should never have embarked on this sort of process."

Mr Hunt stressed that Ofcom and the OFT would be given all the time they needed to consider their advice.

"We're not going to give them a time limit as to when they have to respond. They need to take as long as they take and I need to take as long as I take," he said.

"I think this is a time when we need to take a measured approach to a very difficult decision because very, very important things are at stake."

In his letter to Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards, Mr Hunt asked whether "any potential future decision in relation to the fit and proper persons test" regarding News Corp might have an impact on the takeover.

"Given the well-publicised matters involving the News of the World in the past week that led to its closure, I would be grateful if you would let me know whether any new information that has come to light causes you to reconsider any part of your previous advice to me including your confidence in the credibility, sustainability or practicalities of the undertakings offered by News Corporation," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron indicated that the party's MPs could back a Labour motion in the Commons criticising the takeover bid.

"I cannot see how, if a legally worded motion comes to the House opposing a further Murdoch takeover of BSkyB, I cannot see how Liberal Democrats would vote against that," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"It is no secret that Lib Dems as a body have always opposed the lack of plurality in our media, and in particular have felt that Rupert Murdoch's influence on British politics through the media has been nefarious. We have thought that for decades."

Although experts are divided on the legal force of any Commons vote, in practice the result will be difficult for the Government to ignore.

Mr Murdoch last night held talks with some of his most trusted lieutenants after flying into the UK on the day the News of the World was shut down to take personal charge of the crisis.

Among those who met over dinner was News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks - editor of the News of the World at the time Milly Dowler's mobile phone was hacked.

It was reported that Ms Brooks - who has faced sustained calls to quit but denies any knowledge of hacking on her watch - will be interviewed by Scotland Yard detectives investigating hacking and corruption claims this week.

Questions have been raised about who at News International was aware of an internal report from 2007 which was only recently passed by the firm to the police.

It is reported to show the existence of payments to police officers for information and that hacking was more widespread than thought.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture Select Committee, said Mr Clegg's position seemed "sensible".

He also urged MPs to send a "strong message" to Mr Murdoch on Wednesday that the takeover bid needed to be put on hold. Things had changed "beyond recognition" since it emerged that Milly Dowler's phone messages had been accessed, he said.

"I think what the leader of the Lib Dems has said actually is sensible," Mr Whittingdale told Sky News. "I hope Parliament will send a very strong signal that Rupert Murdoch should stop and think again."

Mr Whittingdale stressed that the Government was obliged to abide by legal process in relation to the takeover, regardless of the outcome of the Commons vote.

Asked if Mr Murdoch should apologise personally for the phone hacking revelations, Mr Whittingdale said: "Yes, I do. Rupert Murdoch is the face of News Corporation... as the head of the company he should apologise."

David Cameron's official spokesman said that the Deputy Prime Minister had been "expressing a view, which he is entitled to do". He declined to discuss whether Mr Clegg had warned 10 Downing Street of the statement he was planning to make today.

But he said the Prime Minister would not be making any public comment on the BSkyB bid, as he had no role to play in the decision.

"The Prime Minister has been very clear not to involve himself in this decision," said the spokesman. "It is a decision for the Culture Secretary that he takes through a quasi-judicial process and the Prime Minister is not involved in it.

"There is a specific decision on media plurality and that decision is taken by Jeremy Hunt and by him alone."

The issue of whether or not News Corporation should withdraw its bid was "a commercial decision for that company", said the spokesman.

He said it was "technically" still possible for Mr Hunt to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission, in the light of any new advice he receives from Ofcom or the OFT, even though the Culture Secretary said in March he was not planning to do so.

The spokesman said the precise terms of reference of the two inquiries had not been set, beyond Mr Cameron's "quite broad" comments on Friday that the judicially-led probe should look at the issues of hacking and the police response, while the second inquiry should look at the culture and ethics of the media.

The terms of reference were an issue which could be discussed when Mr Cameron meets Mr Miliband on Wednesday, he said.

The spokesman indicated that Downing Street is looking "urgently" at the question of whether it would be possible to make details of the Prime Minister's contacts with the press publicly available.

Asked about Mr Cameron's meetings with media proprietors including Mr Murdoch, the spokesman said: "We have said we are going to look at the issue of whether or not we can be more transparent about these contacts. That is something we are doing as a matter of urgency.

"It is inevitable that politicians will meet with people from the media. The issue is whether people feel reassured about these contacts. One way we can deal with that is through transparency."

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