Sky Professes Surprise at 'Sell' Order on ITV Stake

21 December 2007

LONDON: BSkyB, the NewsCorp-controlled UK satellite monopoly, should sell or significantly reduce its 17.9% stake in Britain's largest commercial broadcaster, ITV , the nation's Competition Commission has recommended.

But the commission has no power to enforce that ruling and it accordingly tossed the sizzling political potato into the lap of John Hutton, the tyro secretary of state for business enterprise and regulatory reform - thereby impaling him on the horns of an unenviable dilemma.

If he upholds the commission's recommendation that Sky sell its entire stake or reduce it to below 7.5%, this would trigger the orchestrated hostility of News Corporation's UK newspaper stable.

Given that the Murdoch press collectively commands more than 35% of the UK's total readership, such a decision could be akin to electoral suicide.

Alternatively, Hutton could ignore or water-down the recommendation. In which case he will face an avalanche of protest from every other quarter: ITV, the political centre-left, media-plurality campaigners and the nation's non-Murdoch media.

Announcing its decision, the Commission opined it "likely" Sky would attempt to influence ITV policy over sporting rights acquisitions or spectrum bids; or by using its stake in support of a takeover by "another buyer who might act in BSkyB's interests".

But it rejected the opinion of fellow-Quango Ofcom that the stake poses a threat to media plurality.

The Commission also thought it likely that within the near future ITV will need seek additional investment funds from its stockholders - a situation in which Sky could, if it so wished, use its stake to block the special resolution required for a rights issue.

Meantime, Sky is playing it cool, mildly observing that the commission's recommendation is "difficult to understand when [we] have offered to give up all voting rights".

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff