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Ofcom in screeching U-turn on BSkyB, begins probe

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Ofcom has reversed its decision not to wade into the News Corp and BSkyB row, following public and parliamentary pressure over phone hacking allegations swamping Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

In a letter to three MPs on Friday, the communications watchdog's boss, Ed Richards, outlined a change of direction for Ofcom's handling of BSkyB, which is 39 per cent-owned by News Corp.

"I can confirm that Ofcom is not precluded from acting by the ongoing police investigations," Richards wrote to MPs Simon Hughes, Don Foster and Tim Farron on 22 July.

"I can also confirm that Ofcom's process is not dependent upon a criminal conviction being secured by the police and that we are looking at a range of evidence that may be available."

Politicos are pushing for the regulator to assess whether BSkyB, under the chairmanship of Murdoch's son, James Murdoch, passes the so-called "fit and proper" test to hold a UK broadcasting licence.

But until now Ofcom had insisted it could not undertake an investigation into the company, the remaining 61 per cent share of which News Corp recently tried to buy out before temporarily ditching its bid following cross-party pressure in Parliament.

Indeed, in a meeting with this reporter and other members of the press on 6 July, the Ofcom CEO's stance was quite different to the one he expressed to Hughes et al on Friday.

Richards said earlier this month – as the phone-hacking scandal at News International, the sister company of News Corp, began to unfold – that Ofcom could not intervene on Murdoch's proposed merger of BSkyB until a police probe into phone-tapping allegations at the NI's now-defunct Sunday tabloid News of the World had concluded.

Richards said at the time that any recommendation to block Murdoch's bid to buy BSkyB could not be put forward until facts in the case were established.

"We will consider our position only once the police investigation is complete ... then we'll look at it, if we need to," said Richards on 6 July. "We, like many others, will wait to see what emerges."

Late last week, Prime Minister David Cameron said James Murdoch "still had questions to answer" about the phone-hacking scandal.

Meanwhile, a police probe into illegal voicemail interception allegations against NI is ongoing.

The Register asked Ofcom to explain why it had suddenly reversed its stance over BSkyB.

"Our position hasn't changed; we've always said that we would be in contact with the police and other bodies," said a spokesman at the watchdog.

As part of its inquiry, Ofcom said it had written to Scotland Yard, the Press Complaints Commission and the Information Commissioner's Office. ®

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