FINANCE officers at Camden Town Hall had another look over the investments the council has made using its pension funds this afternoon. Lo and behold, around £300,000 is tied up with British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), the company which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp holds a 39 percent stake in and is eager to gain control of. A decision over that takeover bid, of course, has been suspended by the government until September because of the phone-hacking crisis and the controversy which led to closure of the News of The World this week.
Depending on how you view all things Sky and the saga at the News of the World (Labour Sarah Hayward mentioned her dislike for Murdoch’s papers at the last full council meeting before the Milly Dowler phone hacking story had broken), some might be horrified that council workers’ money were placed in the company in the first place – but it is there, and getting it out is not as easy as a quick phone call to a broker. Local authority rules demand that the council, if Camden did want to withdraw, has to be able to show that the move was ordered because it makes good financial sense and not an ethical argument.
However, there is an opinion in some quarters of Camden that the developments within Murdoch’s ranks going on right now – i.e. yesterday, this afternoon, tomorrow – offers a rare chance where council figures might fairly argue that it makes both: a poor choice ethically (if you don’t want any link with Murdoch whatsoever) and financially. Today’s business reports show the BSkyB share price falling to its lowest mark since February and Ofcom are now investigating whether News Corp can be considered a “fit and proper” owner fit for a takeover – meaning, in rudimentary terms, that the line graph on the share price could arguably stumble, fall further. If there is a significant risk of that happening and it can be proven, even if it was just a risk, Camden could satisfy the rule that insists they use financial commonsense to remove their stake. Labour councillor Theo Blackwell confirmed this afternoon that the pension fund stocks are under review at the council.
In the world of council budgets and pensions funds, £300,000 isn’t a massive amount of money. But maybe other councils in London and further afield have a similar set-up with their investments. Who knows? If they all took the opportunity to withdraw from BSkyB together, lots of £300,000s could mount up to a not insignificant weight.