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Part of Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No.2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 3rd March 2011.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 3:00 pm, 3rd March 2011

Four weeks ago, the Secretary of State said he was minded to refer News Corp’s acquisition of BSkyB to the Competition Commission. Today, it is clear that he has changed his mind. Hon. Members and many people outside the House will want reassurance that the right hon. Gentleman has not put the perceived interests of his party and career ahead of the public interest. Imagine what they would have said if we had made that decision, in that way, in the same week as we had put a former Labour party chairman in charge of the BBC.

Until we get some straight answers to straight questions, doubts will persist. The process has exposed an arrogant Government, cavalier about their responsibility to be impartial and contemptuous of the importance of transparency in circumstances where there is already a high level of public cynicism.

On 21 December, the Business Secretary was stripped of his responsibility for the media and digital economy, because of poor judgment and a lack of impartiality following his boast that he would declare war on Mr Murdoch. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport was given responsibility for this quasi-judicial process, despite being on the record as saying that he did not see a problem with News Corp purchasing BSkyB.

Two days later, on 23 December, the Prime Minister attended a private dinner with James Murdoch in the middle of a quasi-judicial process. That, from a Prime Minister who wrote in the foreword to his own ministerial code:

“In everything we do—the policies we develop and how we implement them, the speeches we give, the meetings we hold—we must remember that we are not masters but servants. Though the British people have been disappointed in their politicians, they still expect the highest standards of conduct….We must be…Transparent about what we do and how we do it. Determined to act in the national interest”.

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether he has had any discussions about the acquisition with the Prime Minister since 23 December—to be clear, not whether he has consulted him, but whether he has had any discussions? If yes, were officials present at these discussions? Does he think that it was right for the Prime Minister to attend that dinner in the middle of this process?

With regard to News Corp’s proposals to float off Sky News as a listed company, I have a number of initial questions. Who will appoint the new Sky News board chair and the board? Will the chair be independent? What proportion of board members will be News Corp representatives? What steps would News Corp have to take if it wanted to change the Sky News governance arrangements or News Corp’s shareholding? Will Sky News be solely dependent on News Corp for finance over the next decade? Who will hire and fire Sky News editorial staff? Will the Sky News board be expected to prevent the bundling of information from News Corp’s newspapers and Sky News? Who will be responsible for monitoring the independence of Sky News over the next decade? What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken of News Corp’s approach to undertakings given in the past following the purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981 and The Wall Street Journal in 2007? Can the Secretary of State confirm that broadcasting news impartiality rules will remain in place? Why has he not consulted UK media organisations opposed to this acquisition during the past month?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to examining the public interest test in the context of a new communications Act, but the rapidly changing digital age means that our media organisations need a modern regulatory framework sooner rather than later. Will he work with me to bring the legislation forward from 2015, as the Government propose, to 2012 or 2013 at the latest?

Media ownership and control is integral to our democracy. The integrity of our democracy depends on news being provided from a variety of sources with no one voice being dominant. As we have said all along, the decisions about this acquisition must be determined in the public interest via the due process laid down by Parliament, not through political deals. In the days ahead, I will engage with interested parties before deciding whether we believe that referral to the Competition Commission remains the most appropriate course of action. My party will apply the public interest test without fear or prejudice.

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