Memo Graeme Samuel:

In their own Oz, the Murdochs today confess to seeking to restrict or prevent competition. Book ‘em, Graeme-o.

Sir Richard Branson wants the British Office of Fair Trading to lumber Jimmy Murdoch for doing to ITV just what Rupert says he’s doing to Fairfax – taking a stake to block someone else turning the property into a threat to Murdoch interests.

So the sticking point in Alan Fels’ argument (AFR, Crikey et al last week) about the Fairfax stake, the word “likely”, suddenly isn’t so sticky. Here’s part of Michael Sainsbury’s Oz coverage:

News Corporation’s British pay-TV arm BSkyB has spent £940 million ($2.32 billion) for a 17.9 per cent stake in television group ITV in a move designed to stop rival NTL or other media groups taking control of the free-to-air operator.

The strategy mimics the move in Australia last month by News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch to take a 7.5 per cent stake, worth $360 million, in rival newspaper group John Fairfax Holdings.

His actions have sent a signal that as the media landscape is being redrawn in both markets, News will be the central player.

Mr Murdoch, whose News Corp owns 38 per cent of BSkyB, has said News would not buy more than 19.9 per cent of ITV and would not seek a seat on its board.

NTL has been making life increasingly difficult for BSkyB. Branson, NTL’s biggest shareholder, told the BBC:

BSkyB’s move is a blatant attempt to distort competition even further by blocking any attempt to create a strong and meaningful competitor.

BSkyB is positioned to strongly influence ITV’s operations in a manner that favours BSkyB’s long-term plans rather than the interests of the other 82% percent of ITV shareholders who weren’t offered a sweetheart deal on Friday.

Which could all be said about what Rupert’s doing with Fairfax. So Graeme, over to you to prove that you’re a strong, active and vigilant guardian of media competition – as you and Helen Coonan keep promising.

Peter Fray

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