According to Neil Chenoweth, a journalist with the Australian Financial Review and author of a new book, Virtual Murdoch, the media tycoon may be planning a mass sell-off of his print assets to clear the antitrust decks for expansion of his TV interests.

Although similar hypotheses have been rife over the years, never before have they come almost simultaneously from all three centres of Murdoch’s fiefdom – London, New York and Sydney, all. It is no coincidence, argues Chenoweth, that laws governing cross-media ownership are currently under review in all three countries.

The rising tide of speculation was sparked a month back in a piece penned by in New York magazine. This suggested that Murdoch was seeking a buyer for his cash-haemorrhaging daily, the New York Post.

And only last week the British government made encouraging noises about its upcoming draft media bill which would excise the “personal and proscriptive” features of the extant Broadcasting Act [WAMN: 21-Nov-01].

Many observers take this phrase to imply the lowering of barriers that currently bar companies controlling 20% or more of the UK newspaper market from holding stakes greater than 20% of a terrestrial TV company. Some believe a quid pro quo for the Blair administration could be the sale of one, or even both, of Murdoch's two politically influential national daily newspapers, The Times and The Sun.

But the latest development is seen as the most significant – the advent on the Australian scene of Anglo-Irish media magnate Sir Anthony O'Reilly, former Heinz global chief executive, now executive chairman of Independent News & Media – among whose media assets are the UK’s The Independent and the Independent on Sunday.

Earlier this month O'Reilly announced he was merging his Australian Provincial Newspapers group with its New Zealand sibling, Wilson & Horton. This is seen as a precursor for APN’s partial bid for the Fairfax Group, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Age and the paper for which Chenoweth writes, the Australian Financial Review.

On the closely held Australian media scene, such a takeover would be impossible without the political and fiscal support either of Murdoch or his rival Kerry Packer. The latter stomped out of discussions with O’Reilly in June, effectively leaving Murdoch holding the key to Sir Anthony’s antipodean ambitions.

According to Chenoweth, some Fairfax shareholders believe there is now an understanding between the Irish knight and the Down Under dragon in which Murdoch would share in the Fairfax deal after selling one or more of his own titles to Sir Anthony – perhaps his British flagship, The Times.

And lest this all this seems convoluted beyond belief, Chenoweth points out that “Murdoch regularly fights proxy wars in one country in the hope of forcing a result in another”.

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