Sky take-over: Labour MPs question James Murdoch character and involvement in phone-hacking email deletion

Media regulator Ofcom must be allowed to investigate attempts to make the “Murdoch empire” in the UK even bigger, Labour has said.

Shadow culture secretary Tom Watson said assurances are needed to ensure the planned £11.7 billion takeover of broadcaster Sky by 21st Century Fox would not allow Rupert Murdoch or his family to promote their own political views and interests.

He added questions remain over the character of James Murdoch.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has said she is “minded” to order an Ofcom investigation into the proposed takeover over concerns about media plurality and broadcasting standards.

 

Watson asked if a full “fit and proper person” test will be conducted by Ofcom before approval of the merger is completed.

He earlier listed convictions linked to phone-hacking involving News International employees, and police and public officials.

Watson also referred to allegations being made in open court that James Murdoch was involved in the “email deletion programme at News International, which has made it more difficult to get to the truth”.

 

Replying to a statement from Bradley on the merger bid, Watson told the Commons: “The company names may have changed since the previous bid for Sky was withdrawn in 2011 but we are still dealing with media plurality, misconduct and the Murdochs.

“(Ms Bradley) has said she is minded to intervene, first, on media plurality grounds.

“The bid would put an even greater amount of media power in the UK in the hands of the Murdoch family.

“It makes the Murdoch empire even bigger. We might call it Empire 2.0.

“Ofcom should look at the whole group of Murdoch-owned and controlled companies in assessing whether the Sky takeover would threaten media plurality.”

On broadcasting standards, Watson added: “We do need to be satisfied that the merged company would comply with the broadcasting code, just as we need to be confident that it would not be used by Rupert Murdoch or his family to promote their political views and interests.

“But the most troubling issues raised by the proposed merger are not about the content of James Murdoch’s programming, they are about the content of his character.”

Bradley, in her reply, said: “Can I assure you Ofcom will not be doing any work with one hand tied behind its back, as you have suggested.”

She added: “Ofcom has sufficient powers and can investigate anything they think is appropriate. I thank you for the points you have raised and I’m sure they will be part of what Ofcom does consider.

“Ofcom does have a fit and proper test for broadcasting licences, that is a different test to the one which will be considered on this merger but the same evidence may be relevant to both.”

Bradley earlier reiterated no final decision had been made on whether to intervene over the merger bid, adding she will aim to do this next week.

 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Tory MP for North East Somerset, suggested there was a “socialist witch hunt” against 21st Century Fox.

He also said  Watson had received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from privacy campaigner Max Mosley, prompting Commons Speaker John Bercow to intervene and demand the Tory MP clarify exactly what he meant.

Rees-Mogg said: “May I begin by declaring my inherited interest in this subject but perhaps also jog the mind of Mr Watson on the half a million pounds he received from Mr Mosley which may have some bearing on these matters.

“What I want to ask Mrs Bradley is whether she will be certain not to involve herself in this socialist witch hunt against Mr Murdoch and news corporation Fox News which has done so much, both through newspapers, publishing and efficiency after Wapping and through the launch of Sky News, to increase plurality in the media in this country, a wonderfully successful company that should not be persecuted because the left doesn’t like it.”

Bercow intervened and said: “Can I just say to you that I’m sure you are not suggesting, and I hope you will take the opportunity to make clear, that you are not suggesting that pecuniary gain has influenced a member in his thinking or statements in the chamber?”

Rees-Mogg said: “Most certainly not. I was merely declaring my own interest and it occurred to me it was only fair to remind Mr Watson that he had not referred to his interest and the half a million pounds he received which I’m absolutely certain was an inadvertent oversight.”

Watson has received donations worth £500,000 from Mr Mosley over the last 12 months.

Mosley is the primary financial backer of the Impress press regulator which was set up in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.

 

Labour former leader Ed Miliband also raised concerns about the need for a “fit and proper” test.

He said that “many of us believe the Murdochs are in no way fit and proper to have full control of Sky given their corporate record”.

He asked Bradley whether such a test would take place before the bid can be completed.

Bradley said: “You will know that fit and proper is an ongoing test for Ofcom to apply to the holders of broadcasting licences and while many of the issues that Ofcom would consider in reaching their judgment are also relevant to me in considering genuine commitment to broadcasting standards, the tests are different and apply at different points in time.”

Labour former frontbencher Chris Bryant echoed a similar sentiment to Mr Miliband as he attacked the leadership of 21st Century Fox.

He said: “The thing is we already know that under James and Rupert Murdoch’s leadership the companies that they controlled bribed and bullied their way round British politics, they poisoned the well of British political engagement, they used anti-competitive practices at every possible turn to try and destroy competitors and they made it impossible for media diversity to flourish in this country.

“Why on earth would anybody think that they were fit and proper people to take over now?

“Their only excuse when they lied their way through their evidence to Parliament was that their company was far too big for them possibly to know what was going on in some small outpost in the United Kingdom.

“That doesn’t suggest that they would be any good at running this now, does it?”

Bradley replied: “You have been on the record on several occasions on your views on these matters and I am sure your points will have been heard.”

 

 

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