Lord calls for 'urgent' reform of media takeover process

An independent body should assess media deals such as the planned News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, Tory ex-Cabinet minister Lord Fowler has said.

The former journalist and newspaper chairman said there was an “urgent need” to reform the process which currently gives Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt the role of approving deals.

But Tory peer Lord Grade of Yarmouth, former chairman of the BBC and ITV, said the present process involving Rupert Murdoch’s company was “one of the most transparent and independent there has ever been”.

Hunt last month said he was minded to back News Corp‘s proposals to spin off Sky News as part of any deal to buy the remaining 61% in BSkyB it does not already own.

The media giant offered to make the channel into a separate independent company and subsidise it for a decade.

Hunt launched a 15-day consultation, which has now closed, and he will report to Parliament after Easter, Government whip Baroness Garden of Frognal said today.

Lord Fowler asked at question time in the House of Lords: “Does not this case show there is an urgent need to reform the process? The decision rests with the Secretary of State and in the last few months we have had one Secretary of State (Hunt) who has accepted assurances from Rupert Murdoch while his predecessor (Vince Cable) said, and I quote: ‘I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win’.

“Would it not be better for everyone concerned to have decisions in these media cases taken by a politically independent body able to judge what is in the public interest?”

Baroness Garden said there was a great degree of independence built into the decisions that are taken. She said Hunt’s decision would be based on “wide-ranging consultation and agreement with Ofcom and other bodies that regulate this particular media”. He was following a “quasi-judicial process in a fair and even-handed way”, she added.

Lord Grade said: “Having watched for 30 years dealings between different governments and News International, the process we are presently going through is one of the most transparent and independent that there has ever been.”

But he asked: “What guarantees can the Government seek in reaching a final settlement that the viability of Sky News as an independent entity is going to be guaranteed?”

Labour former City minister Lord Myners said he was sure Hunt would come to regret the “very unconventional route” he had taken which had not “exposed this very complicated but important matter to a full competition inquiry”.

He called for assurances the independent directors would be “truly independent”, the shareholders would not be “under any influence from Murdoch” and that the company would “remain an independent company and not see its other shares acquired by a party sympathetic to Murdoch”.

Baroness Garden said funding would be guaranteed for 10 years to ensure Sky News remained “independent and financially viable”.

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