Well, Vince Cable may technically still be Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but there’s no doubt what we’ve seen today is the first stage in what promises to be the most grisly, protracted and unedifying resignation in British politics since Clare Short “wrestled with her conscience” over the Iraq invasion.
Many observers have already noted the irony of Jeremy Hunt – scourge of the BBC and advocate for “cross-media ownership” – being appointed to exercise the “quasi-judicial impartiality” required in deciding whether to allow Murdoch to take 100% ownership of BSkyB. Gosh, I wonder what decision he’ll reach, eh, kids?
But there is a difference between Hunt’s bias and that of Cable. Yes, Hunt comes to this decision with a completely biased and politically-loaded perspective, one which makes it almost inevitable he will allow Murdoch to take over BSkyB. Just as it was inevitable that he would squeeze (and will continue to squeeze) the BBC – ideally, one suspects, into non-existence.
But the point is that these are matters of political judgment and political opinion – in other words, precisely why we have elected ministers making these decisions, however much of a “quasi-judicial” element there may also be. Any such decision is a mixture of objective assessment and subjective discretion. That discretion is often very wide.
However much it sticks in our throat to see Murdoch win yet another battle, if Hunt can show that the BSkyB takeover meets the appropriate objective criteria, it is then legitimate for him to exercise his discretion as a minister according to the political convictions on which he was elected.
What it’s not legitimate for a minister to do is to start (or give the impression of starting) a personal vendetta against a particular individual or organisation. That’s why Jeremy Hunt won’t openly put the boot into the BBC per se, but will instead call for “financial responsibility” (i.e. cutting the licence fee) and “freeing up the market” (i.e. giving BSkyB free rein). And that’s why Cable was stupid and vain for expressing his agenda in personal terms, and has set back the anti-Murdoch cause irrevocably by doing so.
What Cable should have said – and what he would no doubt say he meant by what he did say – was that he had declared war on vested interests that accumulate power in a way that threatens fair competition and consumer rights within the broadcasting and media markets. Then, upon exercising his discretion, he may well – who knows? 😉 – have determined that Rupert Murdoch’s empire represented just such a vested interest whose power needed to be restricted.
Still, easy for me to say that. I don’t have two pretty Telegraph journalists sweet-talking me into saying something stupid to impress them, do I…?