24 hours after the PCC announced its intention to dissolve itself, form an interim body (what a nonsense!), and form a new press self-regulator in time to try and pre-empt Leveson's report and recommendations, OfCom drops its own bombshell. According to R5 news this morning, it is set to formally investigate whether Murdoch meets the 'fit and proper person' test to head a broadcast media organisation.
While I think this is a laudable move (that perhaps should have happened some time ago), the surprise is that it comes now. The Tories openly spoke about scrapping OfCom and 'repatriating' (taking back) the powers of the independent regulator into the DCMS (government) during the election campaign, leading to OfCom - disgracefully I felt - abandoning the pro-active stance it had been developing and shrinking itself in advance of such Tory action.
So, two years into the Tory-led coalition government (the Culture [DCMS] Secretary is a Tory, Jeremy Hunt), this is effectively a fight-back by our 'independent' regulator (the extent to which they'd bowed to government pressure, and changes made by Hunt in office, have made the extent of the independence rather more questionable than before - though part of the Tories' hostility was that they felt OfCom chairman Ed Richards was a Labour place-man).
Lets be clear though: the Murdoch issue is not confined to one party. Tony Blair went to extraordinary lengths to win Murdoch/News International's support for Labour; in 1996 he flew to Australia to address a News Corp shareholders conference and hold private talks with Murdoch, who shortly after had his UK papers announce their support for Labour (who then trounced the Tory government in the 1997 election). Labour desperation to retain that support seemed to influence their media policy, as it had the Tory Thatcher government before them, with new media laws seemingly designed specifically to advantage Murdoch's media empire. Even after Murdoch reverted to Tory-supporting in Sept 2009, Gordon Brown's Labour tried desperately to win back that support, leading them to back off ensuring a proper investigation was held into phone hacking (Brown himself was not only hacked but allegedly blackmailed by The S*n).
Video: Sun abandons Labour for Conservatives [PressTV news report]
That doesn't mean there isn't a left/right issue though: 'New Labour' was widely seen as a basically right-wing party, and Blair the real heir to Thatcher - the party Murdoch's papers supported was no longer a left-wing party, having concluded that with such a hostile right-wing press in the UK, there was no hope of left-wing policies getting them elected.
Some further reading:
'Snouts in the trough: 'Independent' media regulator costs taxpayer millions and holds Middle England in contempt' - classic right-wing pov from Daily Mail in 2011
www.politics.co.uk/reference/ofcom - Brief but solid outlineTalk to anyone in the insular, self-regarding, oh-so-liberal London media world about Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards and they will say he’s brainy, self-assured and carries a vast amount of information around in his head.
...But more than anything, Ed Richards is a leading member of the New Labour political establishment, an interconnected, back-scratching mafia that, while bankrupting Britain, made its own members seriously rich.For Richards has done extremely well for himself — the total amount of his salary and pension benefits since he took the helm of Ofcom in 2006 is heading towards the £2 million mark. [...]
'Jeremy Hunt's links with Rupert Murdoch empire under scrutiny' - D.Telegraph report, Dec 23rd 2010
'MPs attack Sky News spin-off to clear way for BSkyB bid: Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, came under fire from MPs for his decision to clear the way for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to takeover BSkyB.' - D.Tele report 3rd March 2011 (with a video report on the page):
There were signs of the fightback from OfCom in January 2012: 'Ofcom chief: new regulatory regime could cover all media: Arguing for common standards across TV, web video and digital publishing is not call for 'super regulator', says Ed Richards' - Media Guardian report (and the proposal surely would merit the descriptor super regulator'?!)In a statement in the House of Commons Mr Hunt said he was minded to wave through the proposed deal after News Corp undertook to spin off Sky News into a new independent company.Labour's Dennis Skinner called the decision a "disastrous day for democracy", while Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said Mr Murdoch had an "unhealthy influence" over Britain's media landscape. [...]
Indie reports on the story I heard on R5: 'Ofcom looks at stripping Murdoch of BSkyB: Mogul under scrutiny in 'fit and proper' test' (9th March 2012) Details 'Project Apple', under which OfCom is investigating whether Murdoch has failed the 'fit and proper persons' criteria required under the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Acts for anyone holding a broadcast license.
'Dancing around the inevitable: The Oxford Media Convention by Regulatory reform of Britain's media is coming: the question is how, and when. This year's annual Oxford event brought the big players together to wrangle over the future of the press.'
Interesting + useful site, not just the article; from the SpinWatch blog: 'Ofcom and BSkyB bid: We should have looked at News Corporation’s political influence' [1st Feb 2012]
Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive, told Lord Justice Leveson that if given another chance to look again at News Corporation’s aborted bid for total control of BSkyB it would have placed more emphasis on the “risk to the democratic process.”...on reflection, Ofcom now felt the proposed BSkyB takeover did raise the need for a wider review of plurality because the conventional analysis of the concentration of media ownership was based on the proportion of readers and viewers and that was deficient because it did not measure the influence on the political process which a company might exercise.Lord Justice Leveson said Ofcom’s admission that its regulatory regime “did not do the job properly” with regard to the democratic process was highly significant to the work of his inquiry. The judge is taking evidence from politicians and media proprietors in May and he said he would like to know before the end of June the scope of any recommendations which Ofcom intended to make to the government; he and his team of assessors intended discussing possible options by early July.Earlier in his evidence Richards explained that companies could acquire “a very substantial share of the media market” not solely by mergers or similar transactions but also by the sudden closure of other media outlets.“You could find because of organic growth that a media company could have too much political power...the current legislation has no means of assessing that...that is a very serious deficiency in a highly dynamic market.”After Lord Justice Leveson said Ofcom’s investigation into the scope of its own regulatory role “plays absolutely full square” into the work of his own inquiry, Colette Bowe, Ofcom’s chairman, said the regulator would do its utmost to ensure that the judge was supplied with details of any proposals Ofcom intended to make to the government.She agreed with Ed Richards about the deficiencies in Ofcom’s power to look into the impact of significant power in the media market; Ofcom already had such powers in relation to the telecoms sector but did not have the same powers with regard to media plurality and the impact on the democratic process.During their oral evidence neither the judge nor the inquiry’s counsel Corine Parry Hoskins asked either Richards or Bowe about the pre-election pledge given by David Cameron in June 2009 that a future Conservative government would remove Ofcom’s policy-making functions and return them to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.Cameron said that in future Ofcom’s remit would be “restricted to narrow technical and enforcement roles” because the regulator had become an “unaccountable bureaucracy” which was taking decisions which should be the responsibility of ministers “accountable to Parliament.”The Sun hailed Cameron’s announcement as the first sign that a new Conservative-led government would curb the activities of the “Ofcom busybodies.”But Cameron’s promises to curtail Ofcom seem to have been dropped in their entirety, along with News Corporation’s bid to take total control of BSkyB – all part of the fallout from the revelations about the hacking of the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler which resulted in the closure of the News of the World in July 2010.