News Corp avoids inquiry into buyout

LONDON - Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has offered to give guarantees on the editorial future of the Sky News channel in an effort to head off a Competition Commission inquiry into its attempt to take complete control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

But a political row broke out yesterday when Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that, as a result of the "undertakings" by News Corp, he was taking the unprecedented step of postponing his decision - despite a clear finding by broadcast watchdog Ofcom that the takeover would be harmful to the plurality of media in Britain.

In a long-awaited report, the regulator said: "Full control would allow News Corp to take decisions involving Sky which are in the exclusive commercial interests of News Corp." It said the takeover would extend News Corp's reach as a provider of news from 32 per cent to 51 per cent.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, criticised Hunt's action and said the Sky bid should be referred to the Competition Commission immediately.

"The sensible thing and right thing would be to do what Ofcom wants to do," he said. "The Government may go round the houses and end up with a reference to the Commission. That would just create a delay and not help anybody."

Murdoch's News Corp, which holds 39.1 per cent of BSkyB, owns four of Britain's biggest newspapers: the Sun, the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times.

Criticisms of the proposed £8 billion ($16 billion) buyout had included fears that News Corp might allow Sky News to turn into an equivalent of its United States channel Fox News, which is known for the polemical and right-wing output of some of its presenters. This despite Britain's strong controls over the impartiality of news coverage.

It is thought that News Corp's undertakings include the possibility of an independent editorial board which would oversee the output of Sky News.

Instead of referring the takeover directly to the Competition Commission, Hunt said he had asked Ofcom to consider whether News Corp's undertakings would address the regulator's concerns over media plurality. He will also seek a view from the Office of Fair Trading.

Meanwhile, questions over the extent of phone hacking in the newspaper industry spread for the first time beyond the News of the World yesterday, as a former MP claimed that stories about his private life that appeared in the Sunday Mirror were based on intercepted voicemails.

Paul Marsden, who was an MP when articles appeared about the state of his marriage in 2003, spoke publicly about the "sequence of events" which he said led him to believe that his mobile phone had been targeted, including an alleged incident where he said someone posing as a police officer attempted to obtain information about him.

Lawyers for the former politician, who left Parliament in 2005, have written to Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Sunday Mirror, detailing their claims relating to two stories. One was headlined: "Exclusive: Latest sordid secret of Lib-Dem love cheat."

The case is one of four breaches of privacy claims being brought by solicitor Mark Lewis, which involve newspaper groups beyond Rupert Murdoch's News International.

The proceedings bring to the fore longstanding allegations that hacking the voicemails of public figures using PIN codes to access messages was rife among Fleet Street titles since the late 1990s, and was not restricted to the News of the World.

A 2006 report by the Information Commissioner into a thriving black market in personal data found that titles owned by Trinity Mirror, including the Sunday Mirror, were among the most prolific customers of a private detective who specialised in obtaining information illegally.

Alastair Campbell has become the latest political figure to write to police asking if evidence exists of his phone being hacked. Campbell was former Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman throughout the period when phone interception was taking place at the News of the World. He said yesterday that he would be "amazed" if no one had tried to hack his phone.

- INDEPENDENT

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