Safe in their hands? 

29 August 2009 tbs.pm/1094

David Elstein: Murdoch “riled” by Ofcom

According to David Elstein, formerly of, inter alia, the BBC, Thames and Channel 5, Ofcom’s “devastating” and “unanswerable” report of a couple of months ago, which exposed Sky’s abuse of its dominant position in premium pay-channels, such as sports (Setanta, anyone?) and movies (remember the Virgin dispute?), has riled James Murdoch. He cites Germany as a good example of competition regulation, forgetting that, according to Mr Elstein, German regulators would have shut down Sky years ago.

Mr Murdoch complains that the BBC’s news operation has a chilling effect on the commercial competition. Er, excuse me. In the United States, newspapers are closing left, right and centre. Web sites such as Craig’s List have snapped up the market for classified advertising, offering for free a service that was the lifeblood of the local and regional press. So, Mr Murdoch, let’s hear it for the “dominance” of free classifieds, and the “chilling” effect they have had on commercial publishers.

Mr Murdoch’s father, Rupert, wants to charge for content on the websites of all his titles globally. What he does not want is to suffer what’s called “first mover disadvantage”. So he’s trying to persuade, bully and bribe his rivals to jump with him, on the basis that if they don’t swim together they’ll all sink together. The BBC’s superlative news operation is one big fly in the ointment.

As we know, Conservative policy is to transfer Ofcom’s policy-setting role to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). If, as seems likely, the Conservatives win the next election, it remains to be seen how receptive they will be to Mr Murdoch’s entreaties. Will they emasculate BBC News online? Will they give Sky more freedom? Will they remove the impartiality requirement?

Only time will tell.