LONDON (Reuters) - Four high-profile MPs have called for Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA.O) to be blocked from buying Sky (SKYB.L), saying the mogul will be able to influence its news output despite promises to the contrary.
Murdoch is locked in a battle with U.S. cable giant Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) to buy Europe’s biggest pay-TV group, with the Australian-born tycoon hampered by his ownership of other assets in Britain including two leading national newspapers.
In order to gain regulatory approval Fox has offered to guarantee the independence of the Sky News operation by funding it for 10 years and creating a fully independent board to oversee it, a move that led analysts and competition lawyers to say the deal would likely be cleared.
But four MPs who have previously criticised Murdoch’s influence in Britain, including the former leader of the opposition Labour party Ed Miliband, said in a letter to the regulator that the offers did not go far enough.
They noted that the chief executive of Sky would still appoint the head of Sky News. “This is a significant statement because other statements made have tended to imply that the Editorial board will somehow be in charge of the process, not the Sky CEO,” they said.
Fox agreed a deal to buy the 61 percent of Sky it did not already own in December 2016 but it has been repeatedly delayed by the government and regulators. It is likely to learn whether it can take over Sky in the middle of June.
Fox has said it does not agree with the regulator’s objections but has offered to protect Sky News to help secure approval. Fox has agreed to sell a string of assets on to Walt Disney Co (DIS.N), including Sky.
Comcast has offered 12.50 pounds per share or 22.1 billion pounds for Sky compared with Fox’s offer of 10.75 pounds per share, but it has not yet made a formal bid and is trying to secure its own regulatory approval.
The four MPs are Miliband; Vince Cable, the leader of the small opposition Lib Dem party; Ken Clarke, a senior MP from the ruling Conservative Party and Charles Falconer, a former Labour justice minister.
“We would urge the panel to come to a clear finding in favour of prohibition, consistent with its powerful provisional findings,” the letter said.
Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Jon Boyle