Will Rupert Murdoch finally get the Sky deal?

LONDON • For most of the last 10 years, the Murdoch family, which controls 21st Century Fox, has wanted one thing for its global media empire above all else - complete ownership of the highly profitable Sky satellite and cable network.

Sky is the dominant pay television system in Britain, a hub for Premier League football, movies and networks such as Fox News and MTV.

It was Mr Rupert Murdoch who founded Sky and 21st Century Fox already owns part of it.

Owning it outright, however, would give the Murdochs an important new cash generator to feed the rapacious appetite for growth that has made the family business the most influential media conglomerate in the world - one that helped hasten Britain's Brexit and helped deliver Mr Donald Trump to the White House.

But three words threaten to stand in the way: "Fit and proper."

It is that standard by which British regulators decide whether a company should be allowed to gain and retain broadcast licences.

It is based on the premise that those who control news, information and entertainment options on television and radio should be held to high ethical standards.

Understanding just how important the Sky deal would be for the Murdochs' personal and global ambitions, and the complications that "fit and proper" could present to them, is vital to understanding the head-spinning developments at Fox News these past few months.

A fit and proper corporate culture - or one that wants to show it is fit and proper - acts quickly to oust a division chairman when he is publicly accused of having sexually harassed various women over many years, no matter how wildly successful he is, and despite his denials.

That is what 21st Century Fox did with Mr Roger Ailes, 76, last summer.

But would a fit and proper company have been so blind for so long to such serious alleged misbehaviour at the top of one of its most important divisions, to the extent that the United States attorney's office is now investigating whether it properly accounted for sexual harassment settlements?

Likewise, nothing says "fit and proper" like firing your highest- rated star after The New York Times reported that sexual harassment allegations against Bill O'Reilly, 67, had led to at least US$13 million (S$18 million) in settlements.

But does a fit and proper company renew the star's contract - to the tune of US$25 million a year - just months after striking settlement deals with two women who had made allegations against him, ousting him only when public scrutiny was brought to bear?

The regulators at the Office of Communications in Britain will have to answer those questions.

For Mr Murdoch, 86, approval would mean finally attaining the full fruits of a satellite television business that he began with his own grit and foresight, and at considerable risk - taking on a crushing debt load that forced him into a partnership with a direct rival, BSB, and ultimately cost him his majority stake.

It would also cap a remarkable comeback from the phone hacking scandal at his British newspaper division, where reporters were caught breaking into the voice mail accounts of royals, celebrities, athletes and crime victims.

That brought criminal investigations, humbling appearances by Mr Murdoch and his son James at parliamentary hearings, and the final humiliation - a call from then UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr Murdoch's political beneficiary, to drop the Sky bid, which he did.

Six years later, Mr Murdoch is, if anything, at the height of his political power, given his special relationship with Mr Trump and the architects of the successful Leave campaign in Britain.

Now, Mr Murdoch has a chance to bring it all full circle with a successful Sky deal.

Few are predicting how the regulators will act.

But Wall Street seems to think that O'Reilly's ouster has helped the deal's chances, given the boost in Sky's stock price that followed it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Will Rupert Murdoch finally get the Sky deal?'. Print Edition | Subscribe