Vince Cable in another fine pickle as EC says “you decide on Sky bid Vince”

UK coalition government business secretary Vince Cable has had a trying old time recently, being excoriated by students and their supporters for helping to push through a tripling of higher education charges (despite opposing any such thing prior to joining the Government) and even falling out with his boss, Liberal leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, over his decision to appear in a Christmas celebrity edition of BBC show Strictly Come Dancing.

Apparently Clegg, who has problems of his own, thinks this makes Vince and the Government look frivolous.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation wants to buy the 61 per cent of UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky it doesn’t own for around £8bn. News itself referred to the bid to the European Commission to find out if it had any competition objections.

The EC is expected to rule this week, probably on Wednesday December 22, that it doesn’t.

Which puts Cable on the spot, just when he was trying to concentrate on his tango.

Cable, who seems to change his mind these days far more often than the weather, said a couple of days ago that he would “set aside” any prejudices he himself had in this matter, relying on the letter of competition law.

The trouble is, nobody seems to know what the letter, in this case the requirement to maintain ‘plurality’ in the British media, actually means.

Cable’s chums at UK media regulator Ofcom, which is also looking into the issue at Vince’s request, tried to help him out over the weekend by saying that the Sky bid had “potential material public interest issues.”

Which is stating the bleeding obvious but may indicate that Ofcom is inclined to refer the bid to the Competition Commission, the UK’s higher authority in such matters. In other words boot the bid into the longest of long grass (the CC is hardly speedy when it comes to deciding such things). By that time of course Cable may have decided that coalition government isn’t for him.

Much of the hullabaloo about the bid was prompted by a letter from various big UK media owners, including the BBC, Channel 4 , the Mail and the Telegraph, to Cable opposing it on the aforementioned plurality grounds (cynics says they’re just frightened of News becoming even richer through owning all of Sky).

But then, late last week, we had BBC director general Mark Thompson saying that, in a multi-channel era, there was no reason why we shouldn’t have ‘biased’ news channels, like News’ Fox News in the US, in the UK. This was echoed by veteran BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough in an interview with journalist Andrew Marr.

I may be missing something here but I thought the plurality fear was all to do with Sky-owned Sky News, once it becomes wholly-owned by Murdoch, becoming a biased or ‘non-impartial’ Fox News-style channel.

Does this mean Thompson, who is thought to have orchestrated the opposition to Sky and was rapped over the knuckles by the BBC Trust for so doing, has changed his mind?

In which case that surely gives Cable another exit route, to approve the bid.

Poor old Vince. Decisions, decisions…

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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.