U.K. Culture Secretary Talks Fox-Sky Deal Review, Online Safety

Credit: Getty / Dan Kitwood
Karen Bradley

Karen Bradley answers questions from the British parliament's Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee.

U.K. culture secretary Karen Bradley on Wednesday discussed in a British parliamentary committee her recent decision to refer 21st Century Fox's proposed deal to take full control of pay TV giant Sky for an in-depth review on two grounds.

The review by the Competition and Markets Authority will focus on the Sky deal's effect on media plurality and issues of commitment to the U.K. broadcasting standards.

The CMA has 24 weeks to investigate the deal and provide Bradley with advice. She must then come to a final decision on whether or not the merger can proceed, including possible conditions or remedies.

Asked in a public session in the Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee about the next steps in the process, she said the CMA will go through its review and submit its findings to her after 24 weeks. She will then make the final decision on whether to greenlight the deal "based on their recommendations and the evidence before me," "not based on any personal emotions or feelings."

She said she will have to keep public interests in mind, as well as the fact that there are two companies that say they want to combine for "good commercial reasons."

Why didn't she accept concessions offered by Fox earlier in the process? "I didn't accept [them], because they were behavioral, not structural," and she felt they weren’t sufficient, she said.

Bradley had earlier this summer said she was planning to ask for a review of media plurality concerns only, but she changed her mind amid latest developments and added consultation with U.K. media regulator Ofcom, which had argued that a review on broadcasting standards grounds was not necessary. 

Asked why she had changed her mind, Bradley on Wednesday told the committee she felt "more scrutiny" was warranted in case she needs to one day defend her decision in a court of law.

Asked how fast she expects to come to a decision once she gets the CMA report, she said her goal was to decide in "sufficiently quick order."

The committee also questioned Bradley about the U.K. government's announced consultation on a green paper on "The Internet Safety Strategy," designed to "ensure Britain is the safest place in the world to be online." The battle against fake news, online bullying, Internet predators, harassment and more are expected to be topics in the consultation. The strategy discussion focuses on such issues as "the responsibilities of companies to their users, the use of technical solutions to prevent online harms and government’s role in supporting users."

Bradley said she wasn't happy with the status quo and didn't rule out new laws, but stressed the government wanted to "harness all the benefits" of the Internet, while also protecting people and intellectual property rights. "We need to get the balance right" between a "free, vibrant Internet" and protections for consumers and IP holders. 

Asked if Internet companies should be redefined in Britain from pure conduits to publishers, Bradley said, "I’m not sure the publisher definition would work" as that could do away with parts of what makes the Internet thrive. Given that social media provides "much more freedom to express yourself," she said, "we have to be really careful" as the publisher definition “could impact on freedom of speech, civil liberties.”

The committee was also scheduled to ask Bradley, later in the day, questions about the potential impact of Brexit on the creative industries, press regulation and the future implementation of recommendations from the Leveson inquiry on media ethics and phone hacking.