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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Hounding of Hunt and the Meaning of Impartial

The most interesting aspect for me of the hounding of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt over his links to News International is the way that the word "impartial" has been misconstrued. Rather than being a "principle of justice that suggests that decisions be based on objective criteria", the new definition of impartial appears to be that you are intent on blocking whatever Rupert Murdoch wants to do. This is dangerously cheapening the debate, and could cost the career of one of the country's most able government ministers.
It reminds me of a former tenant of my wife's old flat who left the flat in a terrible state and made his entire defence to the Tenancy Dispute Service based upon the fact that the independent assessor must have been 'biased' and can't have been 'impartial' based upon his judgement. Since when did 'bias' mean 'not making the judgement you want'?

That's not to say that Jeremy Hunt has done nothing wrong. To walk into the House of Commons as he did and insist he had had no contact with Frederic Michel (Head of Public Affairs for News International) other than official meetings and that he “made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence” the assessment of the bid whilst it was under the purview of Vince Cable (back to him in a minute) was at best badly briefed and at worst a lie. He should be heavily censured for that.

But to suggest that the contents of the memo that he sent to David Cameron on November 19th, even the contents of the original draft of the memo, which were released during the Leveson inquiry, proved he was not  "impartial" is to thoroughly and wilfully misinterpret the meaning of the word. Hunt had, unlike many in the media, taken in information and made a judgement on the bid, and had been doing his job when he did so. In fact, the irony of it all is that he has been accused of not being impartial because in his memo he called for the bid to be judged on "objective criteria". The trouble for most of those opposed to News International's bid to take over BSkyB fully is that the bid, judged on objective criteria, would almost definitely have been approved by the Competition Commission. Which is why objective criteria were the last thing they needed.

The most important point Hunt makes is that "we must be very careful that any attempt to block it is done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors." Let's look at some of this lobbying shall we? Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, had been publicly opposed to the bid, despite the BBC's obligations to be impartial. Thompson's company, which has expertly developed into an all-encompassing on and off-line presence, thereby inhibiting the growth of local news networks and many online businesses with their huge monopoly power, would prefer it if BSkyB didn't challenge that dominance. Hence it is no surprise that Thompson was one of the signatories of a letter to Vince Cable in 2010 opposing the bid.

But Thompson's behaviour in opposing the bid (and allowing BBC news to constantly refer to to Murdoch's "empire", with its pejorative Star Wars Death Star like overtones) has been described by media veteran David Elstein as “the most flagrant breach of the BBC’s impartiality obligations in its 90-year history." Why hasn't this been properly investigated? Because Thompson appears to be on the correct side of the new definition of impartiality - in that if you are opposed to Rupert Murdoch then you must be "fair and balanced".

Let's look at the supposed "smoking gun" more closely. In the memo to David Cameron - Jeremy Hunt says this:

“Essentially what James Murdoch wants to do is to repeat what his father did with the [Sun] move to Wapping and create the world’s first multi-platform media operator, available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad. Isn’t this what all media companies have to do ultimately? And if so, we must be very careful that any attempt to block it is done on genuine plurality grounds and not as a result of lobbying by competitors. The UK has the chance to lead the way … but if we block it our media sector will suffer for years … I think it would be totally wrong to cave in to the Mark Thompson/Channel 4/Guardian line that this represents a substantial change of control given that we all know Sky is controlled by News Corp now anyway.”

What those who object to Murdoch's full ownership of BSkyB are really afraid of is the access that he will have to the enormous profits that company makes. I have already explained (click here) how the  reason they make those enormous profits is from the far-sighted leadership of James Murdoch 8 years ago. That's the point, even with 39.1% ownership of Sky, News Corp have controlled it since birth (the fact that 31 year-old Murdoch was appointed should be example enough). So in terms of who controls Sky, News Corp getting 100% of it wouldn't have made a difference.

So let's go back to those profits. The problem with those profits is that it is easy (should you have a vested interest in doing so or an irrational hatred of Murdoch) to mistake those profits for "control" of the news agenda. This is fascinating given we allow the BBC 47% of news viewership and Sky News only have 7%. People argue that Murdoch would force news provision to become more "partial" (we have strict rules in this country about broadcasting that it cannot show political bias) - but how on earth would this acquisition make any difference given it doesn't actually change control of the company? Also, they don't want another 'Fox News' in this country. Of course, the inconvenient fact is that Fox News has been run with barely any Murdoch interference by Roger Ailes for the last 15 years. So we are left with the biggest problem, and the one that would need to be closely guarded by the regulators, which is the effect on newspaper plurality.

The fear is that News Corp would use the profits from Sky to subsidise incredibly low prices on their newspapers, which would cause customers of other newspapers to switch to the Sun or the Times and cause the death of the wide range of newspapers we have in the UK. Firstly, tell a Guardian reader or a Mirror reader they could have the Sun or the Times for free and they would still pay for the Guardian and the Mirror. But secondly, Jeremy Hunt says very clearly in his memo to Cameron that "sensible measures" can be put in place to make sure that any abuses of monopoly power like this cannot take place. We do have laws in this country on predatory pricing.

It is interesting to note by the way that the full draft of Jeremy Hunt's memo to David Cameron cannot be found on the BBC website or the Guardian's website. Perhaps that's because anyone who reads the full memo instead of the reporting of it may find it makes perfect sense and shows the thinking of someone who is thinking about the future of the media in the UK and has reached a judgement that News International having full ownership of Sky might be good for that future. Just because the judgement is against the prevailing wind does not mean it is wrong. The Permament Secretary of the Department of Culture, media and Sport insisted that whatever his personal views Jeremy Hunt had, from the moment the brief was given to him, taken a proper step back from the process to ensure he did in fact take on as much of a quasi-judicial role as he could.

Yet Harriet Harman of the Labour Party to claimed that David Cameron should never have given the job of deciding whether to refer the bid to the competition commission to Hunt because "it is clear that Jeremy Hunt was not the impartial arbiter he was required to be". I believe he was. He just didn't agree with Rupert Murdoch's impacable opponents. Maybe, just maybe, he had an open mind....which on this issue would make a change.

As for Cameron's part in this....he is having fingers pointed at him regarding the appointment of Hunt - saying that he purposely appointed someone who was "pro-Sky". Cameron has rightly been quick to point out that he at first appointed someone who had been actively anti-Sky in Vince Cable, but Cable remember had had to have the decision removed from him because he had said he had completely compromised himself. To remind you of how read here, but in case you don't have time - Cable said:

"I don't know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win".

Given the EU Competition Commission had just signalled they had no problem with the bid on competition grounds at the time I wonder why it was OK for Cameron to have given the job of deciding whether to refer the BSkyB bid to Cable, but not to Hunt.

It's the naked hypocrisy of all this that really gets me.....

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