Rupert reaches for the Sky

ON JANUARY 23rd critics of Rupert Murdoch felt a moment of vindication. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the regulator reviewing 21st Century Fox’s £11.7bn ($16.6bn) bid to take full ownership of Sky, the European pay-TV giant, declared that the deal would give the Murdoch family too much influence over media in Britain. The CMA said it would recommend blocking the takeover unless Fox took measures to insulate Sky News, the broadcaster’s news channel, from the Murdochs’ influence.

The mogul’s antagonists in Parliament crowed. “Finally a regulator says No to the Murdochs,” tweeted Ed Miliband, a Labour MP. But their chest-thumping was mostly a role-playing exercise, as the takeover of Sky is expected to go through, for three reasons. The most important one is that Disney will eventually be getting Sky, as part of its $66bn bid to acquire much of Fox, subject to regulatory approval. This makes the issue of the Murdochs’ influence on Sky all but academic.

Second, Fox is expected to have little difficulty satisfying the regulator’s concerns. Fox can either make changes in the governance of Sky News that would last until the Disney transaction is completed—such as setting up an independent body to oversee it—or the company could spin off the news operation into a separate entity.

Third, the decision on the Sky takeover is ultimately in the hands of politicians, not regulators. With the Disney deal looming, the case for political opposition to the Sky agreement falls away. Matthew Hancock, the minister in charge, told Parliament that he expects to make his ruling by June 14th, six weeks after he receives the CMA’s final report. Trading of Fox shares indicated little anxiety from investors.

Still, Mr Murdoch and his sons may be miffed. This is the second time this decade that they have tried to take control of Sky (Fox currently owns 39% of the firm). Both times they have been derailed or delayed by concerns about their news operations. In 2011 Mr Murdoch withdrew News Corp’s bid for Sky, amid public rancour about phone-hacking by the News of the World, a tabloid which he later closed. This time Fox News, the American network, came under scrutiny from politicians and regulators for sexual-harassment scandals and opinionated programming.

But ultimately regulators decided Fox would abide by Britain’s broadcasting standards in taking over Sky. It was the influence of the mogul himself that worried them. The CMA found that if Mr Murdoch and his sons had control of Sky News, their news holdings would reach 31% of the market in Britain, putting them behind only the BBC and ITN. Even after he has decided to sell Sky, Mr Murdoch looms as large as he ever has over British media and politics.