James Murdoch has always proved to be the most willing of the kids to learn from dad’s example. Remember his attack on the BBC last year, his outright denial that the News of the World systematically bugged the mobile phones of a long list of public figures in the UK. Now he’s threatening the UK that it will lose a big investment if the bid to buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB News Corp doesn’t own is blocked.

“The government needs to assess the benefits of having a world-leading digital TV business centered in the UK marketplace versus potentially jeopardising an £8 billion investment in the UK with a prolonged plurality process,” Murdoch said today at a Morgan Stanley conference in Barcelona. Murdoch is also chairman of BSkyB.

“From a policy perspective the government needs to assess the benefits of having … a digital TV business that is a world leader centred in the UK market place with all of the things that it brings versus potentially jeopardising an £8 billion investment in the UK with a prolonged plurality process.

“Jobs and innovation and skills are really at a premium and are so needed, particularly in a place like the UK.”

Well, all that wonderful investment and great digital stuff is already there in Britain and News Corp buying 100% control won’t change a thing. The money has been invested, and even if it doesn’t total control, it won’t cut the investment by BSkyB, which is probably the most profitable and best performing part of the entire News Corp empire.

News wants total control of the company to access its cash and profits that are rising faster than they are for many of News other businesses, especially newspapers around the world and the US non-cable TV interests. BSkyB’s profits, revenues and cash flows are far more stable than those from the Fox film studios and bigger and better quality than those in the rapidly growing Fox News business in the US.

Sky has already (with News’ approval), invested heavily in new technology in the UK (it virtually forced digital TV onto Britain). It’s growing rapidly as more customers take up its services, and recently booked its 10 millionth customer. Controlling 39% or 100% won’t change that, nor will the “investment” via a takeover, which is one of the greatest illusions of all time.

Takeovers are not productive investments, they are a transfer of wealth from one group of shareholders to another, who then go off and invest their profits. Seeing there are big non-UK investors in BSkyB, not all the money paid by News would remain in the UK.

James Murdoch then raised the hoary old favourite of pushy businessmen wanting to get their way, the attractions of foreign climes.

“If you look at our investment in the UK over the last 40 years in newspapers as well as in the television business, you’re looking at 30,000 jobs, you’re looking at a world champion in terms of innovation in digital television, you’re looking at the epicentre of digital journalism transformation today,” he said.

He contrasted the UK’s approach with that taken in the rest of Europe and around the world. “From our perspective — from India to Italy to Germany — countries are becoming more welcoming of investment and more welcoming of what we can bring as they really recognise what these investments in the media sector do,” Murdoch said. “Sometimes I think — particularly in this (media) sector — there can be a lack of clarity in terms of what’s really being weighed up and what the benefits of investment are.”

So, will James Murdoch take News Corp’s digital investment to India (where it is doing OK, but not as well as in the UK), or Germany, where about a billion dollars has already been written off a dud investment in a pay-TV business that will be merged with SkyB if the takeover is allowed?

Would the money go to Italy where the company is already a solid satellite business, but with little chance of growing because of the Berlusconi interests are well entrenched and Italian-owned.  The growth in digital content is in English? The market for Italian, Indian or German language content is pretty modest compared to the outlook for English product. Even in India, English content is preferred over the hundreds of dialects.

News Corp, which is the biggest newspaper group in the UK, is offering 700 p a share for the 61% of BSkyB it doesn’t already own. It has brought this opposition on itself via campaigns against its commercial rivals, and the BBC, and the aggressive performance of the Murdochs, father and son. But the Murdochs are not into self-analysis or introspection about life, News Corp and the Murdochian view of the world.

Self interest is their main driving force.

That’s why UK newspapers, the British Broadcasting Corp and phone company BT Group Plc, which has a big pay-TV business, finally awoke to the threat from a fully owned BSkyB and signed a joint letter to UK Business Secretary Vince Cable calling for the bid to be challenged. Cable has asked for a review of the bid, which could hold it up.

Complicating matters is the fact that the News Corp papers supported the Conservatives at this year’s UK elections, switching from the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats, which are in coalition with the Conservatives, were attacked incessantly by the News papers in the campaign. Vince Cable is a Liberal Democrat, leading to claims that this is a payback.

It is nothing of the sort, but don’t expect the Murdochs or their papers to concede that should the review be prolonged, or eventually find against the bid.

And should it be approved, then there are the independent directors of BSkyB who want more than 800 p a share. It’s even harder to get the Murdochs to pay more for a prize asset they already have their foot on. They could offer 900 p a share and shut everyone up, just as the overpaid for Dow Jones to win the Wall Street Journal.

BkyB isn’t a trophy asset like the Wall Street Journal is, with its overlay of political and business clout. The UK broadcaster is a pure business deal, and the future growth machine of News Corp, allied with the Fox Networks/News business in the US, and the likes of Sky Italia, the dud business in Germany, Sky in mostly India, Foxtel in Australia and Sky in New Zealand.

Peter Fray

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