Monday, July 11, 2011

Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure Murdoch BSkyB bid is delayed

I wrote yesterday about my initial reaction to the phone hacking scandal. I now want to turn my attention to the future of News International's plans to take over B Sky B which looked likely to go ahead from Conservative Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt with few assurances from the Murdoch empire that it would get rid of Sky News. This raises long standing concerns about the closeness of

Our Vince Cable would no doubt have referred the takeover to the Competition Commission. In principle this was absolutely the right thing to do. And that was before the revelations of the past week.

It is so stark staringly obvious that there's no way this takeover should go ahead until we see the conclusions of the judge led inquiry into the phone hacking. On that, Ed Miliband is right, despite his party having spent most of the last 20 years licking the boots of Murdoch and his representatives on earth. He intends to bring a motion to the House of Commons on the matter.

The Liberal Democrats have, as Danny Alexander said on BBC Breakfast this morning, a long track record of not cow-towing to Murdoch or any other media baron. I would expect all of my party's MPs to support such a motion. The signals the party is sending out are quite strong on that. Danny is being quite sensible in not giving Miliband a blank cheque and giving away our support before we actually see the wording of the motion. On the other hand, I don't want to see us use some legalistic excuse for not backing it. Surely the law on such matters can't possibly stop the Government putting a delay in the process when there is evidence that widespread criminal activity has been taking place within the company wanting to take the broadcaster over. And that case is helped by the BBC's report that News International have been covering up evidence of wrongdoing for 4 years.  If News International knew in 2007 that the phone hacking scandal was more widespread than they admitted, and they didn't hand that over to the police, isn't that perverting the course of justice, or something?

It may not come to a Commons vote, though. I am certain that our MPs will be putting a strong case for delay within the Government, hoping to change things behind closed doors. It would  be good if ministers themselves could delay the takeover by an appropriate means.

Of course, if News International had any decency, it would simply withdraw the bid. We have, however, seen that that virtue is in fairly short supply in the Wapping area. I find the smiley photocalls with Murdoch saying Rebekah Brooks is his priority,with the flame haired one helping photographers who've fallen over utterly nauseating.

Let's imagine, though, that by whatever means, the Government or Parliament blocks the bid.  Are News International really going to have the nerve to challenge it in the courts? And, if so, what would the public feel about that? Would they really want to continue buying his products in the numbers that they did?

I'm pleased that our MPs have been as robust as I would expect them to be in all of this - first of all it's down to Nick Clegg that we have a judge led enquiry. I suspect that if it had been left to David Cameron, the Downing Street cat would have been put in charge.

Then Simon Hughes wrote to Ofcom questioning whether News International is a fit and proper organisation to run a broadcaster. Of course, if Ofcom say no, then where does that leave Sky, given that NI own 40% of them already. It encourages me that Simon's letter has been published in full not just by Simon, but on Nick Clegg's website.

An interview in today's Independent with Nick Clegg shows his determination on the issue:

On the 6.52am train from London St Pancras last Friday, Mr Clegg speaks with passion: "You have politicians falling to their knees ingratiating themselves with media moguls. You have too many vested interests tied up with each other. You have a culture of arrogance and impunity"
He was quick out of the traps last week, pressing Mr Cameron successfully for the public inquiry covering the police and the press to be headed by a judge. Mr Clegg believes the crisis offers an opportunity to clean up Britain's "rotten establishment". To reflect liberal values, of course. "The anger people feel is almost palpable. The question is how we harness that sense of outrage to build something better for the future."
While Nick's claim that "the pillars of the British establishment are tumbling one after the other" might yet be premature, it's clear to me that our party has been on the right side of the argument on MPs' expenses, the banks, the press and police when these institutions have been rocked by scandal. While people are becoming more aware of the abuses of power and the ways vested interests work together to protect themselves, we're not yet in a position to make wholesale permanent change.

It's clear that the role of the Liberal Democrats is going to be crucial in determining the progress of the News International takeover. For me, it's inconceivable that we could take a course of action which would lead to it proceeding while the investigation takes place.

In the longer term, I agree wholeheartedly with what Cicero's Songs says - that the Murdoch empire should be severely dealt with if the enquiry or police investigation shows criminal wrongdoing.

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