Murdoch hits top speed with bid for BSkyB, digital content moves

And a pretty respectable speed it is for a man in his 80th year. Has Chinese wife Wendy been giving him some local medicines?

It must have annoyed Rupert Murdoch for years that even though he controlled the cash machine known as BSkyB (owner of Sky TV) he only owned 39 per cent of the shares. Now he’s trying to buy the rest of it and has sent off a sighting shot of 675p a share, about £7bn for the 61 per cent he doesn’t own.

At the same time he has made two tiny but important deals in the US, buying Hearst’s e-reader platform Skiff and taking a minority stake in Journalism Online, a recently-established US paid content business.

This will signal to Apple’s Steve Jobs, as if he didn’t know it already, that Murdoch and News Corporation have an interest in the iPad world. It’s interesting that these two deals have emerged at the same time as News Corp’s Times and Sunday Times are bringing in their much-trumpeted pay walls.

But back to BSkyB. News Corporation is the only media company that can possibly bid for BSkyB with any chance of success because of its 39 per cent stake.

So the company’s ‘independent’ directors, chiefly former Schroeders man Nicholas Ferguson, Tesco executive Andrew Higginson and celebrated ‘Martian’ Allan Leighton have a tricky decision or two to take. Chairman James Murdoch has excused himself from proceedings for obvious reasons.

Given News’ dominant position there’s plainly no chance of an auction developing unless a big private equity company or consortium wants to risk Murdoch’s ire for less than complete control.

So a bid of 800p a share might see Murdoch home on the grounds that no-one else is likely to bid. BSkyB’s shares closed at 600p last night (Monday). UK directors are legally bound to accept the best deal for shareholders and, if their judgement is that the shares are unlikely to reach 800p or whatever under their own steam in the foreseeable future then they have to accept the bid.

But the UK regulators, Ofcom and the Competition Commission, are certain to raise objections as the deal would give Murdoch an even more dominant position in British TV to add to its domination of newspapers. The CC stepped in to force News Corporation to sell down its 17.9 per cent stake in ITV.

The new coalition government will be holding its head in its hands, fearful of antagonising its biggest media supporter but perhaps fearful of a much more partisan Murdoch-owned Sky TV.

Murdoch wants to tie up the loose ends in his empire, of which the minority in BSkyB is the biggest, before he eventually steps down.

He also wants to establish the company as the biggest global player in digital paid-for content, hence the two mini-deals in the US.

Who’s to say he won’t succeed?

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.