News Corp.'s lobbying style under spotlight in British inquiry

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News Corp.'s relationships with British regulators and politicians have gone under the microscope this week during a judicial inquiry into media ethics.

At issue is whether News Corp. officials got too cozy with British government officials when trying to push through its since-aborted deal to acquire the 61% of satellite broadcaster BSkyB that it didn’t already own and used its media properties to curry favor with influential politicians.

Some of what’s frowned upon in England is often standard operating procedure here. In the United States, media companies all have large staffs on Capitol Hill for lobbying and go out of their way to sway regulators. Often media companies hire ex-regulators to help make their case. Comcast, for example, recruited former FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker as a lobbyist last year just months after she voted to approve the cable company’s acquisition of NBCUniversal.

The clubby atmosphere of Washington often makes it easy for companies to glean inside information on regulatory matters. Media watchdogs often complain of the revolving door between government and business.


News Corp. in particular is known for their lobbying prowess. In the 1980s and 1990s when News Corp. was getting the Fox network off the ground, the company had such a run of regulatory victories that some started to sarcastically call the Federal Communications Commission the ‘Fox Communications Commission.’

The Obama administration has cracked down on some lobbying practices making it harder for companies to socialize with regulators and politicians. Also, meetings between industry executives and FCC officials are typically disclosed in public filings, usually with details of what was discussed.

Testifying on Wednesday in London before a judicial inquiry into media ethics, News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch downplayed the schmoozing he does with lawmakers and government officials and said he never uses his media properties to forward a corporate agenda.

There are some in the United States who might take issue with that claim.

In 2004, the ratings company Nielsen introduced new people meters to measure ratings for local television stations. After the switch, ratings for stations owned by News Corp. dropped and the company started to argue with Nielsen over the accuracy of the new meters.

At that same time, News Corp.'s New York Post tabloid started running stories about politicians and community leaders who were concerned that the new meters were short-changing shows favored by minority viewers. The Rev. Al Sharpton and then-New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -– both of whom were often targets of the conservative New York Post editorial page –- also started protesting the new measurement system.

Not disclosed in the 15 articles that the New York Post ran on the issue from February to July 2004 was that News Corp. had a lot at stake in the fight. Also kept out of the stories was that News Corp. was a funder of the activist group Don’t Count Us Out that was created to fight Nielsen over the new meters.

Susan Whiting, then-president and now vice chairman of Nielsen, called News Corp.'s campaign to stop the new technology ‘despicable’ in a 2004 Wall Street Journal article.

News Corp. now owns the Wall Street Journal.


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-- Joe Flint