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No end of a retreat

Slowly but surely, inch by inch, Murdoch is being forced back. His withdrawal of his promise to hive off Sky News, which he had previously used as a device to avoid referral to the Competition Commission, was motivated solely by the pressing need to allow time for the present crescendo of anger over phone-hacking to die down, and his fear that if the Government were forced to take a decision now, he would be forced to withdraw his bid for BSkyB as Ed Miliband has already demanded or be humiliated by the Government finding some way to pull the plug on him. He’s banking on the atmosphere looking very different in 6 months’ time when the Competition Commission reports. But will it, when only some 40 of the 4,000 hacking victims on Mulcaire’s 11,000 pages of notes have so far been revealed and when the recent consultation produced an unprecedented 150,000 responses, almost all hostile?

There are now three barriers in Murdoch’s way: competition, ‘fit and proper’, and public antagonism.

The European Commission decided on competion grounds there were no grounds to stop the merger. The Competition Commission however will re-examine the issue through the narrow prism of the ‘media plurality’ criterion of the 2002 Enterprise Act. Ofcom judged last year that it would reduce plurality. So it’s still an open question, which is why at Hunt’s statement yesterday yesterday in the Commons I asked him: “Given that media plurality is so narrowly drawn that it excludes such critically important factors which distort competition as cross-promotion, price bundling, and prevent rivals from advertising, why doesn’t he use the delay caused by the police investigation to modernise the criterion of media plurality by a one-clause bill or by an amendment to the Communications Bill?” He indicated he would do so, in which case a lot could depend on how that is done.

Second, Hunt has asked Ofcom to look again at whether News International are ‘fit and proper’ persons to hold a broadcasting licence. Is it really conceivable that an organisation that has engaged in illegal phone-hacking on an industrial scale for a decade, repeatedly lied to conceal its own criminal activity, withheld key information from the police, and has shown itself bereft of any sense of morality or humanity could be allowed to become Berlusconi-like the biggest and most powerful media organisation ever known in Britain? It’s difficult to see how Murdoch can surmount that barrier.

But, third, even if some way were found round this, there’s still the final court of public opinion. The drip-drip-drip of almost daily revelations of further hacking outrages is unlikely to ease off – there are nearly 150,000 people out there determined to keep their disgust and even visceral hatred going in the media. Cameron has already yielded one concession after another over this matter (as well as on several other issues), so he’s already got form: the gentleman’s for turning. Murdoch certainly can’t count on Cameron to shield him from the coming cataclysm. But then it couldn’t happen to a nicer man.

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