Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Saturday, 3 April 2010 14:09 UK

Tory links to Murdoch under scrutiny after Ofcom ruling

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

Ofcom offices
Ofcom's report on Pay TV has proved to be controversial

How close is the Conservative party to the Murdoch media empire?

The question has been brought into sharp focus by Ofcom's long-awaited Pay TV report, which has ordered BSkyB to cut its charges for Sky Sports.

Last summer, as the media regulator gathered evidence for its pay-TV review, Conservative leader David Cameron said that Ofcom "as we know it, would cease to exist" if his party came into power,

Said Mr Cameron: "Give Ofcom, or give a new body, the technical function of handing out the licences and regulating, lightly, the content that's on the screens. But it shouldn't be making policy, it shouldn't have its own communications department.

"The head of Ofcom is paid almost half a million pounds. We could slim this body down a huge amount and save a lot of money for the taxpayer."

BBC's future

Accusations - hotly denied by the Tories - have been made that Conservative media policy is in effect being written by Rupert Murdoch and his son James - the chairman of BSkyB, chief executive of the Sun's owners News International, and not a fan of Ofcom.

Labour claimed there'd been a deal on media policy after the Sun newspaper switched its allegiance to the Conservatives.

A few weeks after Mr Cameron's comments, James Murdoch launched an outspoken attack on the BBC.

Then shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt caused more alarm when he said the Conservatives would replace the BBC Trust if they came to power, and were considering whether to "rip up" the BBC Charter.

There are some things we agree with [the Murdochs] on, and some things we disagree with them on
Jeremy Hunt, Tory culture spokesman

He's since said they'd let the Charter run its course, to ensure the BBC's independence - but would the Tories allow Ofcom's ruling against Sky to stand?

Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw said governments should not interfere with regulators.

"I think that's a principle that matters greatly and I'm worried that the Conservatives have variously said they would abolish Ofcom, they would reduce its powers, and since this report, there's been a deafening silence from the Conservatives about what they would do."

So I asked Jeremy Hunt, the Tories' culture spokesman, exactly what they would do about the Ofcom ruling?

"We are absolutely clear that these kinds of matters are a matter for regulators, not for politicians, " he told me.

"Where you have competition issues like [the Ofciom ruling], they are obviously highly sensitive and it's incredibly important that they are made by people who can't in any way be influenced or leaned on.

"So that is one of the categories of decision that we have said must be made by an independent regulator and not by politicians."

Ministerial control

And yet David Cameron has said Ofcom would be cut back, if Ofcom even exists in future. What did he mean by that and what is the policy?

"We feel that people elect governments and ministers to make the decisions on big policy issues. So we've said we want the policy-making functions of quangos like Ofcom and the Arts Council to be returned to ministers.

David Cameron
David Cameron has pledged to change Ofcom if he becomes prime minister

"For matters of policy we think it should be ministers that make the decision but for competition issues it's obviously very important it should be done at arms' length from politicians."

But some people say the Tories are in hock to Rupert Murdoch - the Sun has come out in favour of the Conservatives - that their media policy is being written by Rupert and James Murdoch.

"It's absolute nonsense," said Mr Hunt. "There is a great conspiracy theory that's been particularly peddled in the Guardian but I think you just have to look at the whole record.

"Eighteen months ago David Cameron wrote an article in the Sun of all places, defending the principle of the licence fee. This is not someone who is trying to suck up the Murdochs.

"If you remember, James Murdoch's McTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh was explicitly criticising the existence of the licence fee. So there are some things we agree with them on, and some things we disagree with them on."

Mr Hunt accuses Labour of sour grapes at losing the Murdochs' support.

As for the BBC, though he and David Cameron insist they're great fans of the Corporation, he says they'll expect it to take a much tighter grip on the purse strings, if they come to power.

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