When News Corp announced plans to divide into two distinct entities, questions remained about chief Rupert Murdoch‘s aspirations for full ownership of Britain’s BSkyB. Talking to watchers this week, an issue that arises is what effect comments Murdoch made to Sun staffers about News Corp’s handling of bribery and hacking charges could have on his interest in the pay-TV giant. One analyst tells me they don’t think that any business in which Rupert or son James Murdoch has a substantial role “will ever be allowed to buy a single more share” of the company. This person allows, however, that it’s hardly clear from the secretly-recorded tapes whether there was conspiracy to encourage misconduct in a public office, “I’d think the evidence is marginal.” Still, if any serious evidence does emerge from a Parliamentary hearing or a police investigation, most are agreed that UK regulator Ofcom could take another look at Murdoch’s relationship to BSkyB.
The phone-hacking scandal led News Corp in 2011 to withdraw a bid to acquire the 61% of BSkyB that it didn’t already hold. This was considered a blow to Murdoch who had long coveted full ownership. Analysts have held that News Corp would make another run at BSkyB in a few years’ time with the entertainment division, 21st Century Fox, putting forth a bid after the dust had settled around the publishing arm. But the dust may be kicking up again.
The secret recordings of Murdoch talking to Sun journalists, exposed last week by Exaro News, reveal him saying that the practice of making payments to police officers for news tips had “been going on a hundred years” and was the “culture of Fleet Street.” Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday invited Murdoch to appear and discuss the comments and he has accepted the invitation. The Committee itself has no real teeth (and has to be careful not to prejudice any ongoing criminal cases), but it can influence Ofcom. The phone-hacking scandal previously led Ofcom to weigh whether News Corp/BSkyB and senior officers were fit to own a broadcast license. The Parliamentary committee in its own 2012 findings was divided on the matter, but Ofcom gave the parties a pass a few months later. Had Ofcom found otherwise, the belief at the time was that News Corp could be forced to reduce its BSkyB stake to a non-controlling level. The fit and proper question could now come back to the fore, but analysts are divided on a potential outcome, especially given that BSkyB now falls under 21st Century Fox and is separate from the publishing business.
Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is actively seeking the tapes in order to investigate whether Murdoch engaged in conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. What impact any new revelations could have on any investigation by the FBI under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is murky for the moment. However, I’m told that under FCPA, actual “awareness” does not need to be proved, “willful blindness” can suffice.
News Corp has maintained that “Mr. Murdoch never knew of payments made by Sun staff to police before News Corporation disclosed that to UK Authorities. Furthermore, he never said he knew of payments. It’s absolutely false to suggest otherwise.” Responding to the Parliamentary invitation yesterday, News Corp said Murdoch “looks forward to clearing up any misconceptions as soon as possible.”