The Murdoch brothers have held secret talks with Ofcom in a bid to persuade the regulator to wave through 21st Century Fox’s planned £11.7bn takeover of Sky.
It is understood that Sharon White, chief executive of Ofcom, has met James and Lachlan Murdoch in London in the last week to discuss the proposed deal. Rupert Murdoch, their father, was not present.
Both sides have sought to keep the meeting out of the public eye amid swirling political controversy.
Fox has made a bid for Sky six years after an earlier takeover attempt under the News Corp banner failed as the phone hacking scandal engulfed the Murdoch family’s British newspaper group. This time, James, Fox chief executive, and Lachlan, joint chairman with their father, have eschewed political lobbying and public arguments over the proposed deal.
Their meeting with Ms White is part of normal scrutiny procedures but comes with the Murdoch family facing new questions over behaviour at their companies.
Ofcom is conducting an in-depth review of the effect full Fox control could have on Sky and the British media. The Murdoch family’s television and film holding company currently owns 39pc of Britain’s biggest pay-TV operator.
The review includes a public interest assessment of Fox’s record on broadcasting standards. Ofcom is also looking at how full Murdoch ownership of Sky could reduce media plurality. Fox has argued that Sky’s good record of compliance with on-air rules and the rise of the internet mean there should be no objections on these grounds.
In a separate but parallel review, the family’s fitness and propriety as media owners is also under the microscope.
Ofcom chief executive Sharon White has also met opponents of the deal
As part of the fitness and propriety work it is understood that Ofcom has sought detailed information and discussion on the ongoing sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, the right-wing US cable channel. Regulators are said to be interested both in allegations and the Murdoch response to them.
The most-watched Fox News anchor, Bill O’Reilly, and its chief executive Roger Ailes, were ousted over allegations of serious misconduct. Both men denied the claims. Mr Ailes died a fortnight ago.
The scandal has plunged Fox News into turmoil and triggered more senior executive departures. While James and Lachlan are leading the takeover of Sky, Rupert Murdoch is said to be focused on steadying the highly profitable cable news channel.
As Ofcom watches on it has also taken submissions and held meetings with lawyers for their alleged victims, as well as the Murdoch family’s US political enemies. A group of British politicians including Ed Miliband and Vince Cable has also met Ms White to call for the Sky takeover to be blocked, claiming events at Fox News show the Murdoch family should not be allowed more control of the British media.
It is understood that a further meeting between Fox and Ofcom is planned as the regulator approaches the June 20 deadline by which it must report its findings to the Government. Ministers could decide to refer the takeover of Sky to the Competition and Markets Authority or ask Ofcom to agree remedies such as more independence for Sky News.