Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Branson Pressures Blair Over Murdoch Supremacy

Here's an interesting tidbit from the UK. Richard Branson's Virgin Media group appears to have forced the British government into an investigation of the extent of Rupert Murdoch's media supremacy.

The Guardian writes:
The government yesterday launched an unprecedented inquiry into whether the influence of Rupert Murdoch's pay-TV empire in Britain is against the public interest. The trade secretary, Alistair Darling, surprised those who accuse the government of being in thrall to the media mogul by asking Ofcom to review whether BSkyB's purchase of a 17.9% stake in ITV "raises public interest concerns about the number of different owners of media enterprises".

The move, the first of its kind under legislation passed in 2002, was hailed as a "pivotal moment in British broadcasting" by MPs but provoked a furious reaction from BSkyB executives. It raised hopes among campaigners who have complained that Mr Murdoch exerts an unhealthy influence over the UK media, and who had voiced concerns that the Labour government would be reluctant to take him on just prior to a leadership change. Mr Murdoch also owns newspapers including the Sun, the Times and the News of the World in a global media empire.

...The Office of Fair Trading is conducting a separate investigation into the competition issues surrounding BSkyB's £940m swoop for the ITV shares last November. The surprise move was widely seen as an attempt to block a bid by Virgin Media to buy ITV and, despite remaining beneath the 20% cross-media ownership ceiling dictated by the 2003 Communications Act, immediately provoked complaints about Mr Murdoch's wide-ranging interests.

Mr Darling has asked the OFT and Ofcom to report by April 27 and will take both verdicts into account before deciding whether to launch a full Competition Commission inquiry. "I emphasise that this decision only means there will be an initial investigation by Ofcom, and is without prejudice to any decisions I take subsequently on whether a fuller investigation by the Competition Commission may be necessary," he said.
And the World Advertising Research Center adds some more detail:
Although the probe will focus on satellite TV monopoly BSkyB and its 17.9% spoiling stake in the nation's largest commercial broadcaster ITV, the Murdoch family's extensive press interests are also likely come under scrutiny.

Trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling on Monday instructed communications regulator Ofcom to review whether NewsCorp's holding in ITV "raises public interest concerns about the number of different owners of media enterprises" in Britain.

The remit is sufficiently broad to include the clan's four national newspapers - The Times, Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World - which between them command around 37% of the nation's readership.

Ministers are insistent that the investigation was ordered on legal as opposed to political grounds, a nicety unlikely to cut much ice when the Murdoch media get their orders as to which political party to support in the 2008 general election.
Which is, eventually, the rub. Figure the victor to be the one who promises the labour party the most support in coming elections.

However, we should all hope that the one who does the best job of convincing Blair that his party needs their support is Branson. Richard Branson is, like Murdoch, a super-mogul (he's worth over $7.2 billion personally with his various ventures worth far more) but he has a rather more positive public image and very much more progressive ideals. Branson once famously gave his settlement from British Airways in a libel suit as a bonus to Virgin Air employees, has promised to spend $3 billion of the Virgin Group's profits on global warming and has been a vocal supporter of such causes as writing off Third World debt. He is the Patron of the International Rescue Corps, which is one of the few truly independent front-line search and rescue organisations in the world – a UK-registered charity, financed solely by donations and their own fund raising, and manned totally by volunteers - and is also a Patron of Prisoners Abroad, a registered charity which supports Britons who are detained outside of the UK.

A victory for Branson would have wide-reaching consequences in the US as well as in the UK. The Murdoch majority in the UK has meant that, at least since his media support catapulted Thatcher into her first landslide victory, Murdoch has been one of the major kingmakers of UK politics. Thus Blair and his neocon-in-lefty-clothing government. Not only would a change in that dynamic have implications for the US/UK relationship, but Branson's assertion that a monolithic Murdoch-dominated media is bad for democracy would also doubtless resonate well.

Branson also has a good relationship with US media mogul Ted Turner, who Branson credited (along with Al Gore) for convincing him of the need to invest Virgin profits in fighting global warming. A Branson victory in the UK might well tempt Turner into trying to emulate that success in the US.

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