UK orders probe into Murdoch's planned Sky takeover

Ben PERRY
Britain has ordered an in-depth probe into Rupert Murdoch's planned takeover of Sky due to concerns about media plurality and broadcasting standards

The British government on Thursday referred a planned takeover of pan-European satellite TV giant Sky by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox entertainment group to UK regulators for an in-depth probe.

Karen Bradley, the Conservative government's minister for culture, media and sport, said she had referred the deal to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) owing to concerns about media plurality and broadcasting standards.

Last year, 21st Century Fox bid £11.4 billion ($15.1 billion, 12.7 billion euros) for the 61-percent of Sky it does not already own.

The takeover has already been approved by regulators in Austria, Germany, Ireland and Italy as well as the European Union, but not yet in Britain.

The blockbuster deal has raised concerns in Britain about the influence of the Australian-born US tycoon over the country's media landscape, in addition to worries that the controversial reporting style of Murdoch's Fox News channel could be adopted by Britain's Sky News.

Bradley told MPs Thursday that she was referring the deal for an "investigation on media plurality and genuine commitment to broadcasting standards grounds" after mulling for weeks on whether to proceed with such a probe.

"From the point of referral, the CMA has 24 weeks in which to investigate the merger and provide me with advice. I must then come to a final decision on whether or not the merger can proceed, including any conditions."

A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said the referral would be put in place formally by the end of the week.

- 21st Century Fox hopeful -

Responding to the decision, Sky said in a brief statement that it would "engage constructively" with the process, while its share price showed little reaction, gaining just over 0.1 percent to 933.25 pence.

As for 21st Century Fox, it separately said it hoped Bradley would respect the independent findings of the CMA and voiced confidence that the deal would be completed by the middle of next year.

"Subject to any further delays in the decision-making process, we anticipate that the transaction will close by June 30, 2018," its statement said.

Britain media watchdog Ofcom has warned of the "increased influence" the deal would give Murdoch over the country's media landscape.

Britain's main opposition Labour party had meanwhile turned up the pressure on Bradley to act.

With Thursday's decision widely expected, Labour's cultural affairs spokesman Tom Watson heaped praise earlier this week on the Conservative minister.

"I think it's the first time a minister in the current government has ever stood in the way of what the Murdochs want, and frankly not before time, so well done," he told an audience of MPs.

Amid all the concerns regarding the planned takeover, 21st Century Fox announced last month that it was ending its broadcast of Fox News in Britain, citing commercial reasons.

Murdoch had previously failed in 2011 to buy the pay-TV group, then known as BSkyB, owing to a phone-hacking scandal at his now-defunct News of the World tabloid newspaper.

21st Century Fox is one of the world's largest entertainment companies with a vast portfolio of cable, broadcast, film, pay-TV and satellite assets across six continents.

Sky broadcasts a similar offering, including the 24-hour Sky News channel and Premier League football, and also provides internet and telephone services.

In late 2014, Sky changed its name from BSkyB after buying Sky Italia and a majority holding in Sky Deutschland.