Rare victories over Rupert Murdoch tend towards the Pyrrhic, but the Competition and Markets Authority decision to stop him taking full ownership of Sky TV isn’t even that.
This is no glittering triumph for those who think him the most malevolent influence on national life over these past four decades, or fear that he could do to us with Sky News what he has done to the US with Fox News. This is the equivalent of England’s meaningless one-day series win over Australia after the pulverising Ashes defeat.
For one thing, the CMA block is temporary and on media plurality grounds alone. It could be lifted should he assuage concerns, possibly by agreeing to place Sky News beyond direct Murdoch control. While the CMA thinks that owning Sky outright would give him too much political influence – God forbid that should happen; whatever would we do? – it regards him in other regards as a splendid prospective buyer.
If and when he makes pledges about not interfering in editorial content, as he memorably did before buying The Times and Sunday Times yonks ago, it seems the deal might be revived. Either way, the proposed inclusion of Sky in the package of 20th Century Fox assets Murdoch means to sell to Disney for $52bn adds an insulating extra layer of meh.
However gratifying it is to hear a regulator state the bleeding obvious about Murdoch’s excessive influence, it is hardly a game-changer. This game was over decades ago, and nothing since – not phone-hacking over here nor the horrific catalogue of sexual abuse at Fox News over there; certainly not a temporary stay on the Sky takeover – could retroactively affect the result.
It ended here in the 1980s, when Murdoch’s alliance with Margaret Thatcher gave him unparalleled power over the course of British politics. Without him and the antipathy for the EU he propagated through his papers, Brexit would have been virtually unthinkable.
A decade later, the rise of Fox News refashioned the media landscape of the US, and with it the political terrain as well. Without Fox’s “fair and balanced” round-the-clock demonisation of their opponents, it is unlikely that George W Bush would have taken the White House (albeit via judicial coup d’état) in 2000, and inconceivable that Donald Trump would have done so in 2016. Contemplating how Bush’s foreign policy has shaped global history, let alone how Trump’s may reshape it yet, it could be argued that no one since the Second World War has changed the world like Rupert Murdoch.
Given the continuing extent of his power in Washington DC, where Trump carves time from his Fox & Friends intelligence briefing to chat with Murdoch on the phone weekly, you can’t help feeling both bemused and flattered that he still bothers his pretty head with li’l ol’ us.
Perhaps it’s that atavistic attachment to the country where it all began with the purchase of the left-leaning Sun in the late 1960s, and then the snaffling of the Times and Sunday Times from beneath the noses of credulous regulators who couldn’t sniff out a great white shark from inches away.
No one doubts that he still loves print for itself, even if the power of newspapers to steer elections by annihilating candidates of the left seems from the latest evidence to have dwindled with their circulations. But why he would want Sky News, an unprofitable and admirably unpartisan operation in an increasingly impotent country with no tradition and little taste for far-right propaganda, is a mystery.
So is his insatiable appetite for work. In a few weeks he turns 87, which as every Richie Benaud fan knows is the Australian bogey number. If he lives as long as his mother, who died at 103, by the time he departs the absolute imperium of digital media over print will have defanged his British papers of their venom.
In that lies the final and only victory over Murdoch. For now, anyone looking at the CMA’s half-hearted efforts to shackle him with glee is looking only at the surface. After all, he still has powerful friends in the Cabinet.
Acquiring influence in public life comes in various forms. The British version has never involved brown envelopes as much as brown noses, with ingratiating politicians putting themselves at the disposal of proprietors in return for their support. More than 20 years after Tony Blair flew to an island off Australia to kiss the Murdoch ring nothing has changed about an enduring scandal which, beyond this one tiny precaution, can barely be bothered to hide in plain sight.
Next to that, the temporary thwarting of the ambition to own 100 per cent of Sky, and even then perhaps temporarily until it is sold to Disney, is a consolation goal deep in added time against a side that had the crushing win wrapped up a long time ago.