CAMBRIDGE, England (Reuters) - Britain should judge Rupert Murdoch's bid for broadcaster Sky SKYB.L on facts and not politics or risk stifling inward investment after Brexit, his son and fellow executive James Murdoch said on Thursday.
Appearing before an audience of media executives hours after the government referred Twenty-First Century Fox's FOXA.O $15 billion bid for a detailed investigation, James Murdoch struck a combative tone in defense of his family's record in building global businesses that span TV, film and news.
He was confident, he said, that the country’s independent regulators would assess the deal on its merits and not be swayed by politicians with scores to settle over how his father’s newspapers had treated them over the decades.
“Whether or not 30 years ago someone had a grievance about a political position that a newspaper took ... is irrelevant,” Murdoch, who is CEO of Twenty-First Century Fox and chairman of Sky, said at the Royal Television Society’s Cambridge Convention.
“We have a clock on this now. We are confident it goes through.”
The Murdochs returned to buy full control of Sky in December 2016, more than five years after a phone-hacking scandal at their now-defunct News of the World tabloid newspaper sank a previous attempt.
Since that failure they have split their company in two, separating the newspapers from the entertainment assets to help to smooth the deal’s passage deal.
But their reputation remains damaged in Britain after a public inquiry revealed close ties between Rupert Murdoch and prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron, creating the impression of a puppet master pulling the strings of the country’s politicians.
Theresa May’s government has been much more cautious, referring the bid for lengthy investigations and in one instance ignoring the advice of media regulator Ofcom, which had cleared it on grounds of broadcasting standards.
James Murdoch cast himself as apolitical, saying his own opinions did not influence the way he runs a group that made content ranging from The Simpsons cartoon to the award-winning Sky News and movies such as Avatar.
“My politics are not an issue here,” he said.
“It’s an irony that in the U.S., in some sectors, they think I’m a raging liberal environmentalist tree hugger, and here I’m the right-wing demon who is going to Foxify everything.”
Asked if he had spoken to the government about a separate investigation into newspaper ethics, he replied: “The government won’t take a meeting with me.”
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Media Secretary Karen Bradley told the same conference that she had referred the deal to the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) to give the public confidence in the regulatory process.
“I want (the CMA) to look at the concerns that have been raised. You will see when we publish all the information on this exactly why the referral has been made,” she said.
To secure the deal Fox will now need to prove it can uphold broadcasting standards during a six-month review that follows a series of sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits at the Fox News network in the United States.
Asked if the Murdochs could be trusted after presiding over scandals at their British newspapers and later at Fox News, James Murdoch said the company had dealt with the problems effectively.
He defended his stewardship of Sky, saying that few others had invested as much and over such a long period. He added that the issue of inward investment would become even more important as the country prepares to leave the European Union.
“If the UK truly is open for business post-Brexit we’ll look forward to moving through the regulatory review process and this transformative transaction for the UK creative sector becoming an affirmation of that claim,” he said.
The government has given the CMA 24 weeks to examine the deal. It will make recommendations, including any possible remedies, to Bradley.
“I must then come to a final decision on whether or not the merger can proceed,” Bradley told parliament on Thursday.
Sky shares dipped by 0.4 percent to 928.5 pence on Thursday, well below the 10.75 pounds per share offered by the Murdochs for the 61 percent of the company they do not already own.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden and Alistair Smout; Editing by Keith Weir and David Goodman
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