UK press scandal to test competition rules


A proposed overhaul of UK competition rules set to follow the outcome of the fast-moving News International scandal buffeting the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron could have implications in Brussels.

The scandal surrounds the alleged phone hacking of up to 4,000 people by the now defunct News of the World, but has centred on allegations of collusion between politicians, the police and the press in muffling official investigations.

The affair has seen the newspaper's closure and cost the jobs of three senior executives at News International and – on Sunday and Monday (18 July) – the foremost policeman in the UK and his assistant.

Cameron himself is now under intense pressure over his decision to appoint Andy Coulson, a former editor of the newspaper, as his chief press spokesman.

New competition tests could raise questions in Brussels

The UK deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, said on Saturday (16 July) that media plurality tests, used to determine whether transactions in the sector will have an anti-competitive outcome, should be a comprehensive safeguard.

He said that rather than applying such tests only when triggered by transaction events, companies should be subject to such tests on an ongoing basis.

Although member states have jealously protected their individual powers to rule on competition cases in the media sector, a move to create rules allowing companies to be judged on an ongoing basis rather than on a triggering event would raise questions about when Brussels should assess competition rules.

The Commission – which cleared the proposed bid by Murdoch's News Corp for satellite broadcaster BSkyB in December 2010 – looked at whether the bid would have an anti-competitive effect on Europe at large, rather than the UK. News International has now decided not to proceed with the bid.

There have also been calls for foreign media proprietors to be banned from media ownership unless they are UK residents, a move that would set the UK at odds with EU rules.

Scandal of Watergate dimensions

This afternoon the UK and world media will focus on a hearing of the Westminster parliament's media committee examining the scandal.

The committee will quiz media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, his son – BSkyB chairman James Murdoch – and Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief executive who resigned last week and was arrested by police over the weekend in connection with corruption allegations.

Cameron's absence from the UK – he has been in Africa – the high-profile resignations, and questions about his judgement in appointing Coulsen are contributing to an atmosphere of rising concern in Downing Street that the scandal could threaten to engulf him.

  • 19 July: UK Parliament to quiz Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. 

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