Saturday, July 11, 2009

Murdoch says "Jump". Cameron asks, "How high?"

As News International finally break a three day silence to deny the Guardian's claims that they have illegally bugged thousands of people's telephones, Polly Toynbee gives us a perfect example of the way in which politicians fear to get on the wrong side of Rupert Murdoch.

She starts telling the tale of Ofcom's most recent criticism of Murdoch's stranglehold of certain aspects of the British media:

On 26 June Ofcom published a report into the pay-TV market. After long investigation, it concluded that Sky had a monopolistic control: its 80% of Premier League football and 100% of movies from the big Hollywood studios prevent others from entering the market, and Sky sells these rights to others at too high a price. As a competition regulator, Ofcom's job is to keep the market open. Its new ruling requires Sky to sell on its rights to all comers at some 30% less than it currently charges. BT reckons this will drop the average cost of watching top-flight football by £10 a month.

Ofcom's boldness drew an amazed intake of breath from industry players and observers. This is the first time a regulator has seriously challenged Murdoch's market power. Those who stood to gain – BT Vision, Virgin Media, Top Up TV and others — were delighted their protests were so bravely answered.

Sky's chief executive replied immediately that it would challenge Ofcom using "all available legal avenues". This time, however, Ofcom is not expected to allow Sky to use the tactic of delaying regulators in the courts for years – it must comply and can appeal afterwards.

One could reasonably expect the Tories, the party which constantly shouts about the need for competition to applaud Ofcom's desire to see true competition in the marketplace as that - according to the Tories - is what is best for the consumer.

How strange then that Cameron's reaction has been the utter opposite. Here's Cameron's vision of Ofcom under the Tories:
"Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy."
Now, the restricting of Ofcom's powers would suit one company and one company alone, and that is Murdoch's Sky TV.

Is it a coincidence that Cameron is making this attack on Ofcom at the very point when they are trying to create a fairer playing field for Sky's rivals?

Is it a coincidence that Cameron now has Andy Coulson advising him, the man who worked at the News of the World at the very time this alleged phone hacking was taking place?

But Toynbee also detects Murdoch's hand behind Cameron's obsession with Europe and suggests that Cameron is merely trying to appease another of Murdoch's pet hates:

Europe has been Murdoch's one unwavering political obsession. The reason is commercial: the EU is the one regulatory power stronger than his ability to twist the arms of national politicians. EU law nearly stopped him launching Sky until Margaret Thatcher demanded a special exemption to let him start up with almost entirely US content. The one Cameron policy that sits oddly with his bid for centre-ground moderation has been his anti-EU extremism, greater than Mrs Thatcher's, marching his troops out of the influential EPP group in Brussels. Murdoch has shaped our foreign policy by using his press and his political power to inflame Europhobia.

So, Cameron's irrational hatred of all things European can be traced to a desire to please Murdoch, just as his attack on Ofcom - an attack which carries little public support as few care what Ofcom does - can be traced to a similar impulse.

Can we be surprised, therefore, that we live in a culture where it is alleged that the deputy Prime Minister - yes, the deputy Prime Minister - has had his mobile phone calls intercepted by a national newspaper and no-one seems to find that outrageous?

I listened to LBC yesterday and heard James O'Brian tell his listeners that no-one really cares about this story. The man who fulminated - literally for weeks - over the MP's expenses scandal, thought that there was nothing of interest in the fact that a national newspaper had allegedly bugged thousands of people's mobile phones, including, we are told, that of the deputy Prime Minister.

I can't help but feeling, as I witness Cameron and others twist and turn to please Murdoch's every whim, that there are some people who are simply too powerful to be opposed. Which is why the man who supports competition in the free market now finds himself promising to limit the power of the one regulator who can make that possible.

There are few things to worse to witness than the recent shameful episode over MP's expenses, but one of them surely is the utter obsequiousness of our political class when it comes to standing up to Murdoch.

Click title for Toynbee's full article.

No comments: