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The Tickle File is ftm's daily column of media news, complimenting the feature articles on major media issues. Tickle File items point out media happenings, from the oh-so serious to the not-so serious, that should not escape a shorter, more informal format.

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Week of February 27, 2017

Still the man behind the curtain

While it might seem that Rupert Murdoch, principal owner of quite large and, arguably, influential News Corporation and 21st Century Fox, has taken a somewhat lower profile in recent months. After all there’s that new wife, that big yacht and he has been winning at that political table. Still - and perhaps for a very long time - the Mr. Murdoch is a divisive figure, looming large over the broad media world.

Public broadcasters have regularly presented him an existential threat - with plenty of justification. With every national debate about public broadcasting - from programming to funding - eventually his picture is trotted out, figuratively, to focus the fear. Most recent it’s from Sweden.

"Murdoch's campaign against the BBC has had repercussions throughout Europe,” wrote Mats Svegfors and Ulf Dahlsten in an op-ed published in Dagens Nyheter (February 26). Mr. Svegfors is a former Svenska Dagbladet editor-in-chief and former public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio general director. Mr. Dahlsten is a former Social Democrat (SD) party politician. “In country after country, there are demands for restrictions on public broadcasting financing and limitations on use of new media. When the campaign against the public broadcasting kicks off in Sweden again, it is a campaign cut from Murdoch.” (See more about Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation and 21st Century Fox here)

The elder Mr. Murdoch has had few public pronouncements in recent months regarding UK public broadcaster BBC or, it seems, much of anything else. Out of public view has been a record number of visits by a media owner with prime minister Theresa May. And then there was that quite concealed interaction accompanying (UK) Times columnist Michael Gove to an interview with Donald Trump.

Son James Murdoch is the show-runner for a highly anticipated push for 21st Century Fox to fully take over Sky plc. The Murdoch family walked up to that transaction several years ago only to stumble over that phone-hacking problem. As then, media concentration questions have been raised but the betting money is on the Family getting what they want.

No company hides from the takeover masters
media on the menu

Between two big media owners, the Berlusconi family and Vincent Balloré, there is an ongoing war of attrition. Last year M. Balloré, principal owner of French investment house Vivendi, struck a rather modest deal in todays terms with the Berlusconi family, principal owners of Italian media house Mediaset. Vivendi would acquire the suffering Italian pay-TV subsidiary Mediaset Premium in a no-cash share swap and jointly establish a TV production house. But that fell apart, accusations, lawsuits and money flying.

Last week prosecutors in Milan opened an investigation of M. Balloré and Vivendi CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine for market manipulation, based on a complaint by Mediaset as Vivendi acquired a significant (28.8%) stake in Mediaset, second only to that of Finninvest, the Berlusconi family investment instrument. At the same time Italian media and telecom regulator Agcom is investigating possible media concentration issues with Vivendi’s increased position in Mediaset and significant stake (24.7%) in Telecom Italia. While family scion Silvio Berlusconi has been “retired” from Italian politics since that 2013 tax fraud conviction the family has retained influence in several spheres. (See more about media in Italy here)

When it was smiles all around last April M. Balloré made no secret of a grand design creating a southern European competitor for encroaching subscription video on demand (SVoD) portals like Netflix or, even, a consolidated Sky pay-TV operation, principally owned by 21st Century Fox. Vivendi ran from the Mediaset Premium deal after due diligence discovered less than expected. “It’s as if we had been invited to eat at a 3 star restaurant and found ourselves in a McDonalds,” said, colorfully, M. de Puyfontaine, quoted by (February 26).

With the Vivendi-Mediaset agreement set to officially expire at the end of March, lawsuits and such possibly continuing, media watchers have cast their gaze to Sky. Meetings have been reported; “accelerating,” said Reuters (February 17), “cooling off,” said La Repubblica (February 24). M.Balloré may have the last word if the Vivendi stake in Mediaset is raised to 30%, the threshold triggering a possible offer for a total takeover.

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