NewsCorp did not influence openDemocracy

The implication that David Elstein wrote two articles in openDemocracy at the encouragement of James Murdoch's lobbyist is groundless.

David Elstein
25 April 2012

In today’s Guardian David Leigh and Nick Davies analyse the close relations, revealed in emails obtained by the Leveson Inquiry, between James Murdoch, who was lobbying to get clearance for News International to take over completely BSkyB, and the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, who is supposed to have a quasi-judicial role in deciding whether the bid could proceed.

At one point they write:

‘Extraordinarily, when Ofcom reported that the takeover [of BSkyB] might be against the public interest, Hunt's team appears to have asked News Corp's team to help him undermine the findings.

Michel [Frédéric Michel, the chief lobbyist for James Murdoch] wrote: "Spoke to Hunt. He made again a plea to try and find as many legal errors as we can in the Ofcom report and propose some strong and 'impactful' remedies … Would welcomed [sic] other opeds [comment articles] like [Mark] Littlewood or [David] Elstein in coming days."

Littlewood, the director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, issued a statement supporting BSkyB's bid two weeks later and blogged for the Spectator a month later. Elstein, a former Sky executive, wrote two comment articles for the Open Democracy website supporting the bid.’

The clear implication is that I wrote two articles for openDemocracy after this email was sent on 10 January, and did so at the behest of NewsCorp/Jeremy Hunt.

This is not the case. Throughout the 12 months of the BSkyB bid process (July 2010-July 2011), I had no communication of any type with anyone from NewsCorp or the DCMS.

The day before the email referenced by Davies/Leigh, on December 21st I had published an article here in OurKingdom, openDemocracy’s British section which recounted a Polis-organised public meeting at the LSE, where I was one of the panellists alongside Alan Rusbridger. (It followed an article arguing we should not be afraid of the takeover on 6 October and a full exchange I had with Olly Huitson after his November article Can Murdoch be Stopped.)

At the Polis meeting I made it clear that I had no interest one way or the other in the transaction, provided it did not harm Sky News.  The article had a link to a detailed critique of arguments advanced by Enders Analysis (who wanted the transaction referred to the Competition Commission), mostly addressed at the economic issues they raised (which were all dismissed by the EC Competition Directorate).

In November 2010 I submitted a memo to the Ofcom inquiry, which was widely circulated (including to Sky and many other news outlets) and eventually published by Ofcom along with its report.  After the Ofcom report, I wrote a lengthy analysis of it - not at anyone's behest, but because I thought it was a dismal piece of work.  On 4 March I wrote an article strongly criticising the "solution" to the Sky News "problem" that Ofcom had proposed, that News Corp had accepted and Jeremy Hunt had approved.  So not much help even 10 weeks later! It also linked to a web version of my memo, which had been previously widely circulated.

I think I have met Frédéric Michel once, for about 10 seconds as I was leaving a drinks party - he introduced himself.  I have never spoken to him or had any contact with him, since.  The suggestion that I was some kind of ally that could be invoked to write articles in support of a transaction where I had already declared that I had no interest is false.

It also ignores the fact that in April 2010, as part of its Public Service Broadcasting Forum, OurKingdom published my lengthy article supporting the Ofcom report on premium pay-TV channels that Sky so fiercely opposed (and is still appealing), and that my Beesley Lecture the previous autumn had been explicitly critical of Sky, its chairman, its CEO, its attempt to buy 18% of ITV and its behaviour over the supply of sports channels.

PS (29 April 2012): in the original I had the date of the email as the 22 December not 10 January, this has been corrected. The Guardian have since run a claim by Josh Halliday that after the email Elstein “writes two pieces for openDemocracy website in favour of the takeover”. The shift from his colleague’s claim that I “wrote” two articles to “writes” them explicitly claims that they followed the email that named me and is demonstrably false.

So too is the added claim that I have written “in favour of the takeover”. My view was stated in the conclusion of my October 6th article:

"If there are sound grounds, in competition law or in cross-media ownership rules, for intervening, by all means use them.  But a poorly-judged intervention that is bound to fail will do our competition regime - and desire to constrain Murdoch's powerful position - no favours."

I respect the passionate opposition, on moral grounds, of those like of Henry Porter and Alan Rusbridger to agreeing to anything Murdoch might wish to do. But we live in a rule-based society, and perverting the rules so as to hinder Murdoch is no better than bending them to his benefit.  There are lots of rules that constrain Murdoch, News Corp and BSkyB, and I support them all.  If there had been a legitimate competition case against this deal, I would have been a natural supporter (as I was of the opposition to BSkyB buying 17.9% of ITV).  

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