Murdoch is no longer the big man of this multimedia age

Peter Preston
Rupert Murdoch, with Jerry Hall: not a digital titan. Photograph: Karwai Tang/Getty Images

The Murdochs, father and younger son, are rather like Marmite (or, more accurately, its thick, brown Australian rival, Vegemite). You either shrug benevolently as they come back for the rest of Sky or wrinkle your nose. They’re either an acquired taste or one you can never learn to love.

But Ofcom has other considerations on its plate, once – after submissions this week – Karen Bradley confirms her ministerial inclination to call in the regulators to consider the bid to buy the whole of something already effectively (39.1%) controlled. It’s five years since Ofcom recommended five-yearly reviews of the criteria by which it judges media plurality – and plurality (aka diversity) is really at the heart of its task now. The hard bit isn’t having an opinion on Murdoch Inc. The hard bit is working logically through an uncertain rulebook.

So remember what the regulator decreed in that first 2012 template. “Ofcom believes the features of a plural news market include the presence of a diverse range of independent news voices; high reach and consumption of multiple news sources; low barriers to entry and competition to encourage innovation; economic sustainability, with no single organisation holding too large a market share.”

And, perhaps crucially, from even earlier (2010): “Online news, in a wide variety of forms, is used by a significant and rapidly growing proportion of the UK population. It is a dynamic and diverse sector. Online should be included in a plurality review.”

So, see how one thing interacts with another. See how the passage of years brings great change.

The Guardian and Telegraph combined produce 44 million readers. The Daily Star boasts more than the Times

In 2011, with the phone-hacking crisis at its height, the Sun sold 2,815,991 copies a day. Today you can make that 1,666,715. There’s been a collapse in print sales over that period, and the Bun has suffered badly. It is a weaker force on the newsstand. It is also a current loss-maker, posting £62.8m of red ink last year as legal costs and restructuring piled in on top of an ad slump.

What about that “dynamic and diverse sector” online? There, as we know, the Sun has made useful progress. But so have its competitors. If you add the latest National Readership Survey figures (print plus digital) for the Sun and the Times together, they reach 31.9 million UK readers a month. Big numbers, but by no means big enough. The Mirror is almost level with the Sun. The Guardian and Telegraph combined produce 44 million readers. The Daily Star boasts more than the Times.

Consider the online market, moreover, and the nostrums of five years ago seem increasingly frail. In one raucous antechamber of media debate last week, the reach and power of the internet dominated everything. Cue fake news, Facebook and Google. Cue paedophilia anger mushroomed across BBC bulletins. Cue MPs inveighing against the “threat to democracy”. A Daily Mail editorial writer captures the mood: “How much longer can the arrogant, filth-spreading, fake-news-mongering, small-firm-destroying, terror-abetting internet giants remain above the law”?

But when we move into a separate room that says “Murdoch Sky bid” on the door, that whole controversy suddenly fades. We’re back to the legendary clout of five years ago. We’re supposed to forget about online and its influence. We’re invited not to note how – in readership and advertising reach – print and digital are becoming one category, not two. We’re definitely not reminded of the 50% of young people who get most of their news off the net: the selfsame net operators who have laid print revenues low.

Such compartmentalisation begins to seem too damned convenient. And Sky News itself – regulated and obliged to follow public service guidelines – exists in this wider world of expanding plurality. The latest Barb audience figures show it winning just 0.66% of the total TV market. Maybe 1.9 million viewers will click on for a while or a moment during that day. It’s a useful service that keeps winning prizes awarded by its peers and praise from Ofcom, but it in is no sense dominant – merely one voice among many.

All of which leads to one simple conclusion. Ofcom may have compelling reservations about Murdoch’s suitability to own the big Sky. It may rigorously question son James’s sad blindness to bad things happening around him. The old reservations of five years back may remain. It may further wish to argue for a Leveson 2 to see what a further inquiry into police-press relations can reveal. “Fit and proper” behaviour is a separate issue that the regulator can treat on their merits.

But on the main event of referral – diversity – the sands of time are creating a new landscape, one where the big bad giants of the future come from Silicon Valley, not Manhattan. A landscape largely devoid of meaningful regulation. And meanwhile the only regulator in town, Ofcom, has its five-year review schedule to keep.

So there’s every good reason for Bradley to refer – and for Ofcom to grapple openly with a fast-altering media hegemony. One curse of media regulation is that it’s always five (or in this case 15) years behind the times. One boon of a Sky inquiry is that it would have to make the dusty imperatives that rule us fit for 2017 purpose.

• One not very elevated point of Treasury pre-budget leaks (or, as the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed calls them, “briefings”) is to suss out potential political potholes and avoid them. So what are we to make of the “fury” etc over raising self-employed national insurance rates that saw Philip Hammond “trapped” right across the Guardian’s front page on Thursday? A measure specifically “mooted” everywhere from Mail to Times before Hammond reached for his spreadsheet? Either no one reads these briefings or no one trusts them enough to bother reacting. In which case, can we have our old veil of budget secrecy back, please? It makes it more interesting on the day.