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Branson calls on government to stand up to Murdoch

LONDON - Sir Richard Branson has warned that the government must to put a stop to BSkyB's acquisition of 17.9% of ITV and called for an all-party review of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, saying its growing dominance of media was 'anti-democratic'.

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He accused political parties of being "scared stiff" of Murdoch and voiced concern that, with media such as The Times, The Sun and Sky being part of the tycoon's empire, their singular political influence on the public was a major threat to democracy in the UK.

He made his comments in the wake of ITV's rejection yesterday of NTL's £5bn merger offer. The broadcaster said the shares element of the deal NTL proposed was unattractive and it saw no appeal in combining with with the cable firm, which is 10.5% owned by Branson.

The Virgin founder has called on all political parties to put up a united front against the Murdoch empire's seemingly ever-increasing influence.

"There comes a time when governments have to draw a line in the sand. Every single time the Murdoch empire makes a move on more and more of the British media, governments don't have the courage to stand up to them," he said in The Daily Telegraph.

"It should be an all-party situation where nobody tries to score any political advantage," he added. "Labour, Tories, Liberals should all stand as one and say enough's enough."

Branson added that the issue with Murdoch was not personal, pointing out that a businessman's job is to attempt to dominate, while the government's job is to ensure that monopolies do not come about and break them up if they do.

"Murdoch is a very good businessman," he said. "He's played a very good card and it's up to the government to decide whether he can get away with it or not."

Branson's views were supported by film producer and media figure Lord David Puttnam, who was involved in the drafting of the Communications Act of 2003. It was that act that limited BSkyB to taking a stake of less than 19.9% in ITV.

"I find it hard to see how [BSkyB's move] can be interpreted as anything other than undue influence," Lord Puttnam said in The Times. "A continuing silence by the government can only create the impression that there's some sort of cordon sanitaire around the affairs of News Corp."

Earlier this week, the Office of Fair Trading indicated that it is unlikely to investigate BSkyB's £1bn purchase of 17.9% of ITV, despite claims by bidder NTL that the deal is anti-competitive.

On Monday, the OFT said that it did not believe that there was enough information to "suggest that a merger situation has arisen at this stage". However, the authority's announcement does not mark a final decision and the body may readdress the topic in the near future.

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