US cable giant Comcast is unlikely to face a regulatory review of its £22bn takeover bid for Sky, the owner of Sky News.
Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “not minded” to refer the bid to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for deeper scrutiny on public interest grounds.
The news will come as a disappointment to 21st Century Fox, Sky’s biggest single shareholder, which is also trying to buy the company.
Fox, which owns 39.1% of Sky, launched a £17.5bn bid to take full control of Europe’s largest pay-television broadcaster in December 2016 – but the deal has been held up since by regulatory scrutiny from both the CMA and the media and telecoms regulator Ofcom.
It is thought to have been arguing behind the scenes that Comcast’s offer for Sky should come under the same regulatory scrutiny as its own offer has.
Image: Comcast owns Universal Studios and US broadcaster NBC
It has been backed in this by shadow culture secretary Tom Watson, who has been a particularly trenchant critic of the Fox bid.
He said last month it was important that Comcast’s offer was “properly scrutinised and [that] full due process is followed.”
Concerns have also been expressed about Comcast’s poor record on customer service in its home market.
However, in a written ministerial statement, Mr Hancock said on Monday: “Having reviewed the relevant evidence available, I can confirm that I have today written to the parties to inform them that I am not minded to issue an EIN (European Intervention Notice) on the basis that the proposed merger does not raise concerns in relation to public interest considerations which would meet the threshold for intervention.”
Mr Hancock gave interested parties until 5pm this coming Thursday to submit written representations.
He added: “I aim to come to a final decision on whether to intervene in the merger shortly.”
Comcast is still waiting for the European Commission to approve its proposed takeover of Sky.
The Commission has already given its blessing to the Fox takeover of Sky, as have all the individual regulators in Germany, Italy, Austria and Ireland, the other countries in which Sky broadcasts.
Image: 21st Century already owns 39.1% of Sky
Fox is currently waiting for Mr Hancock to announce whether or not its bid for Sky should be allowed to go ahead.
This will be based on the verdict of the CMA on whether the takeover would give the Murdoch Family Trust – a major shareholder in both Fox and in News Corporation, owner of Britain’s best-selling national newspaper, The Sun – too much influence over the UK news media.
The CMA has already delivered its report to Mr Hancock on the matter and he is due to make a decision by 13 June.
Fox has offered a number of remedies aimed at protecting the editorial independence of Sky News which included offering to sell Sky News directly to Disney.
Disney agreed in a separate deal just before Christmas – which remains subject to regulatory approval – to buy Fox’s entertainment assets, including its shareholding in Sky, for $52bn.
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Comcast, which owns Universal Studios and US broadcaster NBC, has also expressed interest in buying those assets and was recently reported to be lining up financing for a $60bn offer.
It is believed its decision to go ahead will depend on whether US courts clear the way for US telecoms giant AT&T to buy Time Warner, owner of CNN, TV producer HBO and the Warner Brothers film studio.