At a seminar on media plurality held in City University today, two knowledgeable commentators aired opinions on the vexed issue of News Corp’s bid to own 100% of BSkyB that were so different from the usual lines of argument that they deserve a wider hearing.
David Elstein, who has worked for most British broadcasting channels (including BSkyB), pointed out that the debate over the takeover was now entirely confined to Sky News, the least valuable part of the company and losing somewhere between £30m and £50m a year. The BSkyB board, he said, had already made clear that it was prepared to sacrifice – to sell or to close – the news division in order to get the rest of the deal through. In those circumstances, Elstein suggested, Rupert Murdoch could happily allow Ofcom, the regulator, to appoint the team of news executives at Sky News and make several other similar concessions to erect barriers against his interference in news. In that case, Murdoch would have no more or less influence on the editorial output than he does now, but would have secured the profit stream from the company at that relatively small price.
Elstein went one stage further and reminded his audience that news organisations are not the same as broadcasters: Independent Television News, for example, doesn’t broadcast but supplies other broadcasters. Sky News could find itself in the same position as a contract supplier of news, perhaps in Britain and certainly in continental Europe.
This got me thinking. People have talked about the possible closure of Sky News, particularly if a deal stops the cross-subsidy from BSkyB. But tens of millions of pounds have also been invested in the Sky News website. The site is one of the best of its kind in the world – often giving the larger BBC a run for its money – with a sizeable team of its own journalists, including video reporters. The chances of this being shut down, even if Sky News wasn’t broadcasting any more, are small. Almost certainly zero.