Cable takes on Murdoch, and looks set for a first round defeat (updated)

I don’t usually delve into breaking stories, but this one is a meeting of the worlds of Government and Media, and looks set to have significant impact on the UK Cabinet, and potentially News Corp in the UK, so forgive me on this one occasion.

As you may have seen, this afternoon news broke that The UK’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, indicated that he would seek to block Rupert Murdoch from taking over British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB). In fact as you can hear in the Daily Telegraph’s recording, Cable seems to take on a whole raft of issues in what he thought was a discussion with constituents, but turned out to be a discussion with under cover reporters from the Daily Telegraph.

Yesterday, Cable had already been quoted attacking the UK’s Coalition Government, but this disclosure was held back. The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that Cable said: “Can I be very frank with you … I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that.”

This afternoon, further details of the conversation were released confirming Cable also attacked Rupert Murdoch, saying: “You may wonder what is happening with the Murdoch press. I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we’re going to win.”

“I didn’t politicise it, because it is a legal question, but he [Murdoch] is trying to take over BSkyB, you probably know that. He has minority shares … And he wants a majority. And a majority-control would give him a massive stake.

“I have blocked it, using the powers that I have got. And they are legal powers that I have got. I can’t politicise it, but for the people who know what is happening, this is a big thing. His whole empire is now under attack. So there are things like that, that being in Government … All we can do in opposition is protest.”

Murdoch’s attempt to buy BSkyB outright is currently under scrutiny by Ofcom who were due to report to Cable in the next few weeks.

To date, Cable has been generally liked, and his position in the Government is certainly a crucial role, but can he continue after these comments? As i write, the Prime Minister is believed to be in conference with senior members of the Cabinet, who are likely to make an announcement later today. however, i can’t seem him surviving the expected backlash.

Before the News Corp-related quotes came out, Nick Clegg said his Business Secretary was “right to be embarrassed” about remarks The Daily Telegraph did publish, and David Cameron confirmed Cable had been “very apologetic” when the Cabinet met this morning, but i expect harsher words this evening.

News Corp for its part has commented; “News Corporation is shocked and dismayed at the reports of Mr Cable’s comments. They raise serious questions about fairness and due process.”

In fairness, this comment may force the Government’s hand, as competition law stipulates that Media Corp’s acquisition must be cleared by the Business Secretary. Mr Cable is supposed to judge whether the proposed buy-out would harm the media industry, after taking advice from the regulatory authorities. So how can he now be considered impartial?

So, will this cost Cable his job? In most other roles i don’t think it would even be a question, his position is going to be extremely difficult after these comments, and that’s without counting Media Corp’s considerable political reach. The rumour mill is already indicating Cable will resign.

However, he has been painted as a key part of the Government’s response to the economic downturn, so he will be difficult to remove easily.

This whole scandal really was of Cable’s own making, and if PR has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is off the record and to expect anything you say to come out at some point. It seems this basic advice escaped Cable on this occasion.

* Update, as of 18.00 21st December, Vince Cable will continue as Business Secretary, but will take no further part in the decision over News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BSkyB, which will be handled by The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

In a brief statement Cable confirmed: “I fully accept the decision of the prime minister and deputy prime minister. I deeply regret the comments I made and apologise for the embarrassment that I have caused the government.”

For full updates, i recommend the Guardian’s politics Live blog.


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