Ofcom, Project Apple and BSkyB

14 Mar 2012  |  Jim Marshall 
Jim Marshall

Jim Marshall says Ofcom's 'Project Apple' investigation is misplaced and irrelevant - unless of course they can demonstrate that BSkyB has not behaved in a 'fit or proper' way, which they won't be able to...

It has emerged that Ofcom has embarked on an investigation into whether News Corp, with its 39.1% share holding, is a 'fit and proper' company to have ownership in and manage BSkyB.

In fact the investigation was launched in January and is code named 'Project Apple'. It follows on from the revelations uncovered by the Leveson inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. It seems to get ever more troublesome for News Corp... and the Murdoch clan.

But what does it all really mean?

Well, the most important questions first: Why is it called Project Apple? Who knows, maybe it's a reference to 'one bad apple'. However, as soon as you give something a code name, it imbues the investigation with an increased air of mystery and importance - the sort of investigation conducted by a Gary Oldman/George Smiley type character, as portrayed in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Whereas another Ofcom investigation would be regarded as, well, just yet another Ofcom investigation.

Secondly, what does a 'fit and proper' company/person require? Again, difficult to tell. The Ofcom press release simply states: "Ofcom has a duty under the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996 to be satisfied that any person holding a broadcasting licence is, and remains, fit and proper to do so."

So not much help there. Interestingly the phrase 'fit and proper person' is often bandied around, but invariably after the owner of a media empire and/or football club has found themselves in dire financial problems - usually as a result of mismanagement and highly dubious deals of various kinds - a trend set by Robert Maxwell, of Mirror Group and Oxford United fame some years ago, and followed to a lesser or greater degree by many since, including most recently Glasgow Rangers.

However, it always seems to apply in retrospect, possibly because there is no clear definition of what constitutes someone who isn't 'fit and proper' in the first place. (Or more probably because the definition of someone who is 'a fit and proper person' is having enough money to run their chosen empire - media, football, etc - until it goes wrong. Then, and only then, do you become not fit and not proper. Or is that me being overly cynical?)

Anyway, back to Ofcom's investigation - finally, who is in the dock on this one... is it News Corp? Or is it somewhat more personal - i.e. is it the company chairman James Murdoch? Again, this is not clear but Mr Murdoch has scuttled back to America and, though he retains his chairmanship of BskyB (for the time being at least), it has taken him out of the immediate firing line.

And, again being cynical, Ofcom will struggle to 'convict' the entire News Corp organisation but Mr Murdoch would be a high profile scalp, which would probably satisfy those clamoring for retribution while avoiding the need to take action, which could have drastic implications for BSkyB and indeed UK broadcasting overall.

For me, there is just one key issue here. Ofcom should be regulating and policing the output of BSkyB, not whether they think its senior executives are nice people. Of course Ofcom has had a number of spats with BSkyB in the past. For example, it has ruled against it on the pricing and distribution of its sports and film channels. It has also been critical of BSkyB's general programming output in its annual reports. So there is certainly a general feeling that Ofcom is considerably less enamored with BSkyB's approach to broadcasting, certainly in comparison with ITV and Channel 4 - its public broadcasting 'shining lights'.

However the facts are that, though BSkyB may come across as being brash, 'popularist' and highly commercial, it has made an enormous and largely unique contribution in the development of both new technologies and new approaches in UK broadcasting.

Only the BBC can claim to have made the same sort of progress in digital innovation. (And of course the BBC is not part of Ofcom's remit). Additionally BSkyB has been a pioneer in news and even arts coverage, at a time when the terrestrial commercial channels have been downgrading these elements of their schedules. All of this has been achieved by BSkyB with huge levels of investment by its owners, including News Corp, with no subsidies or 'protective' regulations.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no question of BSkyB having behaved in any way illegally or having even 'bent the rules' in its development from tiny and largely commercially irrelevant satellite broadcaster of the early 1990s to arguably the most powerful UK broadcaster in today's digital environment - and certainly the most profitable.

So, for me, Ofcom's investigation is misplaced and irrelevant, unless of course they can demonstrate that BSkyB has not behaved in a 'proper or fit' way, which they won't be able to. In fact Ofcom have never accorded BSkyB the proper credit for their contribution to UK broadcasting and BSkyB would be fully justified in quoting Jack Nicholson from a Few Good Men (admittedly with one or two word changes): "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a committee, which rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very technology that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way.".

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