Tom Watson – 2017 Response to Government Statement on Sky/Fox Merger

Below is the text of the speech made by Tom Watson, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East, in the House of Commons on 12 September 2017.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.

The Secretary of State has taken her responsibilities seriously, and I give her credit for that. I give her credit, too, for listening to the evidence before her, including new evidence submitted after she had announced her initial decision, and for changing her mind. I also want to praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who has run a very effective campaign in this area. Dare I say it, but I think he leads the race for Back Bencher of the year for his campaign?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision—or, I should say, the fact that she says she is minded to make such a decision—to refer the bid on broadcasting standards grounds, as well as on media plurality grounds. This is the first time that a Minister in the current Government has ever stood in the way of what the Murdochs want—and, frankly, not before time. So well done, and as they say in the Black country, “She’s a good ’un.”

The Secretary of State has done everything we asked her to do—or almost everything. Her statement does in my view, however, reflect a failure on the part of Ofcom. In its first report, as she said, Ofcom said that there were

“no broadcasting standards concerns that may justify a reference”.

It has now admitted that there are, as she said, “non-fanciful concerns”. On that basis, she had to refer the bid, and she has done so. It should have been obvious to Ofcom, as it certainly was to all Labour Members, that concerns about the Murdochs were more than fanciful.

After all, the Murdochs have a long history of regulatory non-compliance and of corporate governance failure. Just last week, Fox recognised its own failure to comply with broadcasting standards when it pulled Fox News, which has breached Ofcom’s rules again and again, from the UK. Ofcom could have gone further, too, on the “fit and proper” test. It decided that a post-merger Sky would pass, despite clear evidence of impropriety and failure of corporate governance both at 21st Century Fox and at News Corporation.

Such failures include the phone hacking scandal, which still has loose ends that are yet to be tied up. Just last week, News Group settled 17 cases related to allegations of criminality at The Sun newspaper, ensuring that James Murdoch will not have to appear in court later this year. Those 17 cases are just the first tranche of 91 new claims of phone hacking and illegality in obtaining information against The Sun and News of the World. This story is far from over, even if we will read little about it in the pages of the Murdochs’ newspapers, and ​all these cases are claims against a company that claimed for over a decade that there was no problem and that tried to move heaven and earth to prevent abuses from being uncovered. This is alongside the ongoing sexual and racial harassment scandal at Fox News, which is part of 21st Century Fox’s empire.

As I have said, the Secretary of State has done almost everything we asked her to do. The one thing we still want, and we have said this time and again, is that we need to get properly to the bottom of the scandals at the Murdoch empire—part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. She has now shot her fox with the Murdochs. She has burned her boats, and they already do not like her—I know what that is like—but that liberates her. Go on, Secretary of State, do the right thing: go ahead with Leveson 2.