MEDIA: Sky’s inability to win over the public doomed its football bid

The failure to win control of Manchester United must seem like a pin prick to Rupert Murdoch in the great global media battle he wages.

The failure to win control of Manchester United must seem like a

pin prick to Rupert Murdoch in the great global media battle he


It would be nice as an insurance policy, should BSkyB’s exclusive deal

with the Premier League be struck down, but it is not central to his

plans. Nor is its loss life-endangering for BSkyB - as the unruffled

stock market reaction demonstrated. BSkyB will stand or fall on the

success of its ambitious digital expansion. Which explains why Mr

Murdoch can promise not to wage a ’jihad’ on the Government.

Yet, as the dust settled from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission’s

(now the Competition Commission) stinging decision, the questions

persist: did BSkyB blunder with its bid PR? Or did it lose Manchester

United through a combination of PR boobs and a failure to argue its case

energetically in the court of public opinion, on TV and radio?

Last Monday, Mark Booth, BSkyB’s US chief executive (who set the tone

when he was unable to name United’s current left back, Dennis Irwin, at

the bid press conference), sent an e-mail to all staff. While

disappointed, he said the company had done a good job putting its case

to the regulators.

Emotional arguments rather than competition issues had won the day, he

said. Alas, this overlooks BSkyB’s failure to win round the key external

regulator, the ITC, whose submission argued that guarantees preventing

abuses would be ’unenforceable’.

The Booth message also left open the PR issue. BSkyB seems to

consistently underestimate the hostility it provokes - specifically, the

anti-Murdoch/anti-Sky climate into which this bid was launched.

News of the bid erupted like a thunder clap last September. BSkyB based

its case too heavily on technical competition grounds, believing, as did

the City, that it would squeak through public interest tests. The loss

of political ally Peter Mandelson at the DTI was a blow, since Chris

Smith, Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, had insisted on an MMC


BSkyB was also constrained, by takeover rules, in the kind of lobbying

and advertising it could pursue. But even company insiders now say they

didn’t do enough as an array of Shareholders United Against Murdoch and

ManU fans joined forces and lobbied, often with no opposing BSkyB


Sure, BSkyB employed a Manchester PR agency and its head of sport, Vic

Wakeling, was used to argue the case there, but very little was heard


But even if BSkyB had run the smartest PR campaign ever seen, I doubt it

would have prevented the regulators from going with the grain of public

opinion. Booth set out early on to make Sky seem more friendly, but it

hasn’t managed to erase the anti-Murdoch factor.

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