Buying time 

6 July 2011 tbs.pm/1268

Can News Corporation still achieve its dream of taking over BSkyB despite what now appears to be difficult if not insurmountable obstacles that have been placed in its path?

Up until very recently it looked as if the News Corp-BSkyB deal was complete apart from one or two mere formalities; Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt wasn’t at all opposed to the idea, unlike Vince Cable who was removed from his job courtesy of a strange ‘scoop’ from the Daily Telegraph that had at least some of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory.

And talking of newspapers, what seemed just a minor embarrassment involving the private lives of various celebs being intruded – albeit illegally – by the News of the World, has now extended into acts that can be best described as grossly tasteless as well as reinforcing evidence relating to corruption and malpractice.

The timing of these new revelations is almost spooky in itself and could be more than mere coincidence considering an important decision is about to be made in two days’ time relating to the highly contentious News Corp takeover of BSkyB, but are these latest revelations strong enough to at least force a further rethink?

Such a takeover plan will now have to overcome three significant tipping points if it’s still to succeed at this point in time:

Firstly the News of the World phone hacking scandal has upped its game considerably with the latest revelations; Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked and rumours of further police corruption might conceivably generate enough public outrage to put the News Corp-BSkyB deal on hold.

Making a firm decision to support a News Corp-BSkyB deal here and now could have a catastrophic side effect in terms of legal ramifications if further phone hacking-related revelations were to subsequently emerge, perhaps extending to further corruption allegations involving journalists, police and politicians.

Secondly, given the huge number of people signing the Avaaz.org petition due to all the negative publicity, government staff will have to thoroughly read all of the messages (even if the majority of them consist of the same text) so as to reduce the risk of future legal challenges – a very time-consuming process that may stall any decision past this Friday’s deadline.

And thirdly, if more advertisers can be persuaded to boycott the News of the World in the current climate, there may just be enough embarrassment factor to make a pro-News Corp judgement seem less tenable than it might have otherwise have been – money and public opinion certainly talks the loudest.

(The Sun newspaper will also be affected as well, and perhaps The Times to a lesser extent.)

Whether the News Corp-BSkyB deal can publicly be given the green light after all of these events will depend on whether or not David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt will now be able to publicly approve and support such a deal without flinching even once, and for that to happen they will have to successfully fend off any remaining arguments.

Firstly, if News Corporation’s management truthfully didn’t know about what happened at a time when News of the World journalists were openly abusing the privacy of public figures, policemen and the victims of crime, then that in itself is a symptom of gross mismanagement because company subsidiaries should always obey the law.

(And Rebekah Brooks being on holiday is such a laughable excuse, I mean, would a business radically change its working practices overnight when she was out of the office, only to change them back again on her return? What about the potential fallout from such dubious practices that would subsequently reach her in-tray? Doesn’t make sense at all.)

It’s true that there’s intense competition between tabloid journalists in order to get the best news stories for their readers, but the News of the World example is what inevitably happens when there’s no external regulation and no effective management of highly competitive circumstances, with events inevitably getting out of hand in the process.

Of course it goes without saying that if the Press Complaints Commission couldn’t stop Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked in the first place then it’s less useful than a chocolate teapot; the issue of press regulation is caught up in a web of self-interest amongst press barons and politicians but something will inevitably have to change as a consequence.

There are also lingering doubts in relation to media impartiality, namely that the sell-off of Sky News alone will be nowhere near enough to protect all the remaining BSkyB TV channels from undue personal and political influence; Ofcom will be incapable of doing such a job especially as it isn’t currently part of its remit.

Also there’s still a very remote possibility that Ofcom might be forced into making further checks relating to the suitability of News Corporation’s directors in respect to controlling BSkyB; something that could force at least a partial rethink of a takeover deal if nothing else, even if the checks themselves are doomed to failure.

However Ofcom will apparently only perform such checks after the police have concluded all of their enquiries, which will take some time especially as it also involves internal investigations relating to accusations of corruption, therefore a lengthy delay before a final decision is made on the takeover proposal may be required.

In other words, don’t hold your breath for anything like this to happen.

Major potential problems could occur if the takeover is approved without taking these factors fully into account, because such an approval under current circumstances is very likely to give an impression to many people that the UK’s government is openly aiding and abetting multiple forms of corruption both inside and outside of the corridors of power.

If you agree that something really has to be done about this, by far the easiest yet still effective form of defence against a BSkyB takeover is the aforementioned Avaaz.org petition which takes less than a minute to complete and will stall any decision past the Friday 8 July 2011 deadline if enough people actively participate.

It’s best to change at least one or two of the words in the sample text provided because the staff employed to read these messages will no doubt have some system of quickly weeding out duplicates, and the aim is to slow down this administrative checking process to the point that it isn’t completed by Friday’s decision-making deadline.

Stalling the deadline will also make it harder to justify any final decision as well as buying more time for further phone hacking-related revelations that might just conceivably make the difference in any final analysis; it’s this that may have a real effect compared to any protracted hand-wringing from people opposed to a deal at such a late stage.

Update 7/7/11: The final decision on the News Corp-BSkyB deal has now been delayed until September due to the “volume of submissions” (read: Avaaz petition signers), giving a chance for someone else to be instated as Culture Secretary if anyone within central government is serious about backtracking on the deal.