Murdoch manoeuvres to save BSkyB bid with appeal to Competition Commission

By Ian Dunt and Alex Stevenson

Rupert Murdoch has called for his bid to take over BSkyB to be handed over to the Competition Commission.

The move, a desperate last-minute gamble designed to salvage his attempt to gain full control of pay TV in the UK, means he is unlikely to find out what will happen to the bid for at least another year.

It does not mean he avoids Ofcom, the media regulator, from assessing whether News International executives are "fit and proper" persons to own a broadcaster. The watchdog's duty in that respect is ongoing, a spokesperson said.

The company withdrew its offer to hive off Sky News as a separate company as part of its attempt to control BSkyB.

Media secretary Jeremy Hunt said the move meant the Competition Commission would offer an "exhaustive assessment" of the deal.

He was mocked by Labour MPs, who have been demanding to a reluctant government that the case be handed to the Competition Commission for a week now.

Some critics are worried that Mr Murdoch's move will kick the issue into the long grass when it may be accepted at a less politically heated moment.

"The culture secretary has adopted the very position he has spent months opposing," Labour leader Ed Miliband said in the Commons.

The opposition leader opted to reply to the media secretary's statement to draw attention to the fact that he believed David Cameron should have been addressing the Commons himself.

In a confident and forensic performance, Mr Miliband attacked the government's response to the crisis and Mr Cameron's decision to employ Andy Coulson in Downing Street.

"This issue goes to the heart of the prime minister's integrity," he said.

"He is a prime minister running scared".

Mr Hunt had earlier announced he would write to Ofcom asking whether the events of the last week had changed the arguments for plurality, however.

He also intended to ask if they may have affected its assessment of executives in News International being "fit and proper" persons or raised questions about independence at the TV network.

BSkyB shares tumbled again after Mr Hunt's announcement this morning, falling nearly five per cent over the courase of the day. The broadcaster has seen £2.5 billion wiped off its value since the phone-hacking row began last Monday.

Mr Hunt's questions to Ofcom were intended to prove that he realised the debate has moved on from one about plurality.

One aspect of the Hunt letter actually expanded the attacks on the Murdoch empire.

It raised the issue of whether the apparent dishonesty of News International employees in their answers to parliamentary select committees, the police and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), meaning Sky News' editorial independence could be brought into question.