Belfast Telegraph

Karen Bradley 'still minded' to refer 21st Century Fox's Sky bid to watchdog

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley is "still minded" to refer 21st Century Fox's £11.7 billion bid for Sky t o the UK's competition watchdog.

The Cabinet minister said no final decision has been taken but unless new evidence changes her mind in the coming weeks she will refer the bid to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) o n "at least one ground" - that of media plurality.

Ms Bradley added that detailed representations have been submitted by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox, while Lachlan Murdoch and James Murdoch have sent a letter.

The Conservative frontbencher updated MPs on the final day before the parliamentary summer recess, having previously told them she was minded to refer the bid to the CMA for a fuller investigation on the grounds of media plurality.

Labour welcomed the Government's "indecision" on the bid, and called on Ms Bradley to demonstrate "she is in charge" rather than 21st Century Fox.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband advised Ms Bradley to take her time and not "give in to the old tricks of the Murdochs", which he said involve trying to "bully people into making wrong decisions and rushed decisions".

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Bradley said: " Given the consultation only closed on Friday, there has not been time to consider all the representations, and I am not in a position today to make my final decision on referral.

"What I can do, however, is confirm to the House that having carefully reviewed the parties' representations, and in the absence of further proposed undertakings, I am currently still minded to refer on the media plurality ground and still minded not to accept the undertakings in lieu of a referral."

Ms Bradley sai d she has prioritised considering representations from the relevant parties to the bid, noting: "Whilst some of the points they have raised may benefit from closer examination by the CMA at phase two in the event that the merger is referred, there was nothing in their representations that, at this stage, has led me to change my mind about the appropriateness of referral.

"Unless new evidence from other representations changes my mind in the coming weeks the bid will therefore be referred to a phase two review on at least one ground - media plurality."

Ms Bradley said she will write to all parties involved in the process as well as Labour, Speaker John Bercow and others if she makes a final decision during the summer recess.

Shadow culture secretary Tom Watson said there is a "strong possibility of judicial review by one side or the other", whatever decision Ms Bradley makes.

He said: "21st Century Fox's lawyers have already written a somewhat intimidating letter to the Secretary of State trying to bounce her into a decision.

"We know that aggression is the Murdochs' modus operandi. We've been on the receiving end of it in this House and we urge the Secretary of State to keep standing firm.

"There is absolutely no need for the Secretary of State to announce a decision during the summer recess - Parliament must have the opportunity to scrutinise any decision she makes.

"It is not her job to operate to 21st Century Fox's corporate timetable - they have to abide by the parliamentary timetable.

"And she should demonstrate to them that she, as an elected representative of the people, is in charge, not them."

Mr Watson asked Ms Bradley to "get on and just do" part two of the Leveson Inquiry and also to publish minutes of a meeting between Rupert Murdoch and Theresa May in the US in 2016.

He said: "The Secretary of State now has the opportunity to demonstrate that we live in a democracy, not a Murdochracy."

In a statement, 21st Century Fox said it was "disappointed" that Ms Bradley remains minded to refer the bid to the CMA on plurality grounds.

It said: " We respect the importance of regulatory scrutiny and we continue in our commitment to work constructively with authorities as we have done since this process began.

"In light of the transaction's benefits to the UK creative economy, we would urge the Secretary of State to complete the regulatory process expeditiously."

Responding in the House of Lords, Labour former lord chancellor Lord Falconer of Thoroton said: "I am glad that she's minded to refer on plurality and I'm horrified she's minded not to refer on broadcasting standards.

"My concern is that Sky, which is a trusted broadcaster at the moment, should go the way of Fox news in the US and we lose an impartial broadcaster who complies with our standards.

"I am extremely worried that Sky's going to fall 100% into the hands of a family that have been guilty of allowing regulatory standards to be ignored in relation to the newspaper industry in the UK and have allowed Fox News to be guilty of a whole series of illegalities and breaches of the law, in particular in relation to sexual harassment.

"I am extremely concerned legally that the Secretary of State is going to rely too heavily on what appears to be a flawed finding by Ofcom that Sky would remain fit and proper when it became 100% owned by 21st Century Fox."

Government frontbencher Lord Keen of Elie said: "As regards his observations about the behaviour of Fox and the position of Sky going forward, clearly all of these considerations will be in mind when the Secretary of State arrives at her final decision.

"At the end of the day the points of concern raised are bound to be addressed in the context of this decision."

Liberal Democrat Lord McNally said it was "extraordinary" that a decision could be taken during the parliamentary summer recess.

He added: "It would be an absurd assault on parliamentary dignity and parliamentary responsibility to do that."

Lord Keen said the Secretary of State had to act promptly "both for the benefit of the public and for the benefit of the parties interested in the proposed merger".

He said that because of the timing issues, the announcement "is liable to be made during recess".