Not so long ago, the business pages of one national newspaper
charted a week in the roller-coaster existence of Rupert Murdoch’s media
empire. It was designed to show the scope and power of the organisation,
but it also graphically illustrated the extent to which the company
keeps spinning, even when it appears to be standing still.
In a week in which no concrete deals were announced or even on the
cards, there were hundreds of stories about Murdoch’s companies -
speculation about talks, smokescreens created and waves of ’Rupert is
coming’ hysteria washing back and forwards across at least one corner of
Murdoch is a man whose reputation precedes him, but he makes the most of
it and is not above laying the odd false trail. That’s why some analysts
are reluctant to take the news of BSkyB’s merger talks with Canal+ at
face value. What’s not in question is Murdoch’s determination to
establish a bridgehead on continental Europe. He’s cracked America, the
Far East and Australia, but has yet to make an impression on mainland
Having failed to sign a pact with Leo Kirch in Germany and having seen
successive Italian invasion attempts rebuffed, the next obvious route is
via the Pas de Calais. Canal+ would make an unbelievably good fit. It is
arguably the world’s leading pay-TV company, with digital TV platforms
in France, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway,
Denmark, Sweden and Finland. It is also an impatient company.
It’s big, but not big enough. The company wants to join the superleague
of media owners. And for that, you need not only a US presence but a
Hollywood film studio.
The chairman and chief executive of Canal+, Pierre Lescure, has
continued to insist that he needs a strategic alliance with ’an Anglo
Murdoch’s future is about digital pay-per-view and, like Canal+, sport
is a big business driver. He also owns Fox. So, add those elements
together and you have a done deal.
We’ll see. If nothing else, all the speculation has succeeded in
flushing one bird from the covert. Within hours of the story reaching
the newspapers, Karel van Miert, the European Commission’s competition
regulator, stated that a deal would almost certainly trigger a
Van Miert was also prompted to make a statement on another topic with
direct relevance to Murdoch’s expansion plans. From now on, he stated,
the European Commission would investigate all major deals between sports
governing bodies (especially football) and TV companies.
One of the motivations behind a BSkyB merger with Canal+ would be the
development of an iron grip on European sports rights - particularly
Canal+ owns Paris St Germain and has strong ties with Juventus; BSkyB
may soon own Manchester United.
The European Champions League, which looks set to become the world’s top
football tournament, could start to look like a works outing for
CanalSky+ teams. So van Miert would almost certainly seek to block a
merger - especially as he has put down these markers so quickly. In
fact, it looks a very stupid proposition indeed.
Is Murdoch creating yet another smokescreen for his true intentions?
It may not be half as Machiavellian as that.
Look at the result of last year’s unacceptable European deal - the
proposed merger of Germany’s two digital television platforms, Leo
Kirch’s DF1 and CLT-Ufa’s Premiere. Van Miert was unequivocal in
blocking it and stuck to his guns despite the political row that
developed in Germany.
Last week, presumably having lost interest and following lobbying that
sought to convince van Miert that Europe needs big media owners to keep
the Americans at bay, he waved through a restructured deal. CanalSky+
may not be such a stupid idea. Perhaps all Murdoch will need is