By Puttnam, David
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 135, No. 4821
Towards the end of a recent BBC Question Time programme, Polly Toynbee received a thunderous round of applause when she described Rupert Murdoch as "the most pernicious force in the country by far".
Yet even though many citizens may instinctively agree with Richard Branson's assessment that Murdoch is a "threat to democracy", nothing beyond a resounding silence has been heard from either the Labour or the Tory benches following BSkyB's acquisition of a 17.9 per cent stake in ITV--the catalyst for Branson's remarks. Indeed, not a single prominent politician from either major party has thus far broken cover to suggest that the deal might raise serious questions about the future of media plurality in Britain. This is despite, or more probably because of, the fact that Murdoch owns four national newspapers, has de facto control of the BSkyB pay-television service (through a 38 per cent shareholding), owns www.my-space.com, the social networking site most heavily used by the UK's young people, and has now perched himself on the catbird seat at our largest commercial terrestrial broadcaster.
It is easy to dismiss Branson's comments as sour grapes, given that BSkyB's purchase of an ITV stake has in effect scuppered the chances of NTL (in which Branson has a 10.5 per cent holding) acquiring control of the terrestrial giant. Whatever the catalyst, I still believe Branson's outburst to have been sincere, that he was speaking as much as a citizen as a businessman, and, most importantly, that he is absolutely right on this occasion.
Yet, astonishingly, the public has no idea whether there is anyone in parliament who agrees with him. It's almost as if there's a conspiracy of silence, a conspiracy fuelled by a fear of alienating the most powerful media owner in the country.
In purely business terms, there is no question that by acquiring its stake in ITV, BSkyB pulled off a spectacular coup--only equalled by ITV's acquisition, a few days later, of Michael Grade as its executive chairman. It is hard to imagine the brilliantly combative Grade finding it easy to accommodate a significant shareholder who is also competing in the very areas of entertainment, news and sport that will naturally be his focus for success.
At stake is the erosion of competition within the British media, and the consequences that has for British democracy.
There are those who seem willing to accept that BSkyB's move is merely an attempt to shut out NTL. But as Neil Chenoweth, one of Murdoch's biographers, has written, in Murdoch's deal-making "there is always a second strand running below the public transaction, known only to insiders, and then there is a third strand running under that again, which no one ever sees".
In the case of ITV one can only guess at what the second and third strands might be. But some analysts have suggested that the acquisition of a stake in ITV is merely Murdoch's first card in a longer game, one in which he will end up controlling Channel 5. RTL, owner of Channel 5, is strongly rumoured to be interested in ITV. Murdoch might be willing to sell out to RTL and to the other ITV shareholders in exchange for the prize of the fifth channel.
Dominant satellite position
That would not just be a "threat to British democracy", it would be a further step in a process that can only end in disaster. The capacity of Murdoch's British interests to "cross-promote" that terrestrial channel, using their dominant satellite position and their newspaper holdings, would be without precedent. …