Ofcom chief executive Sharon White has said she is “absolutely confident” about advice from her body which said Rupert Murdoch’s planned purchase of Sky would not undermine its broadcasting standards.
Culture Secretary Karen Bradley opted to ignore Ofcom advice recommending the £11.7bn merger only be referred to the competition watchdog over concerns about its impact on media plurality.
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She also chose to refer the bid to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on commitment to broadcasting standards grounds.
Taking questions from members of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee today, White was asked if Ofcom had taken its report on the merger “seriously enough”.
She said: “We did a very careful, detailed, consideration of the 51,000 pieces of evidence on the public interest test.
“We had another 50,000-and-something pieces of evidence on the fitness and propriety and I’m absolutely confident that we did a professional, independent, expert job.
“At the same time, where were pieces of evidence, particularly from the corporate governance issues in Fox News, that were extremely disturbing and extremely serious and we certainly found issues of corporate governance failings.
“As the regulator our job is to assess whether Sky, who currently has a very strong record of compliance on broadcasting, whether those issues would cause us to believe that Sky would not continue to have a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards or indeed continue to be fit and proper to hold a licence.
“On these two judgements, our view was we thought that Sky would continue genuinely to have a commitment to broadcasting standards. The Secretary of State has the discretion and she has taken a different view, but the piece of work we did I’m absolutely confident was independent and properly executed.”
Also discussed in the committee meeting were concerns over impartiality at the BBC, which moved to be regulated by Ofcom earlier this year following a structural overhaul under the new Charter.
White revealed Ofcom had received “about 960 complaints” against the BBC since taking on the regulation of the corporation six months ago, although some 95 per cent had been sent directly to the regulator rather than first going through the BBC’s own complaints handling process.
Ofcom chairman Dame Patricia Hodgson said: “In relation to BBC output, the underlying standards and any complaints that are made are now considered by an independent body one step removed and with no interest in any of the internal doings, as it were, of the BBC. Independent, objective, at a distance.”
Asked whether the BBC should engage or expose alternative news websites like The Canary (whose editor appeared on Question Time earlier this year), Hodgson said: “That’s an editorial matter for the BBC.
“The broad point… is that we all, whether viewers or the regulator, expect BBC news to address relevant issues of the day with accuracy and impartiality.
“Obviously it decides itself what those issues are, but if it turned away and failed to engage with key issues, that would pretty soon become apparent and we, with our accountability processes would want to ask why.”
Asked whether Ofcom thought the likes of Facebook and Google were publishers, Hodgson said it wasn’t a matter for Ofcom, but added: “My personal view is that they are publishers.
The CMA today set out more detail about its investigation into the Fox/Sky merger as it called for “views and evidence” to be submitted about media plurality in the UK and Sky’s commitment to broadcasting standards.
Panel chairman Anne Lambert said: “The CMA will use its extensive experience of investigating different issues in a wide range of sectors to thoroughly and impartially investigate the proposed takeover of Sky by 21st Century Fox.”
The CMA is required to report to the Secretary of State with its recommendations within six months of opening the investigation.
Dame Patricia Hodgson. Picture: ParliamentTV