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Bad apples

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’ makes a forced sale of some or all of 's shares in look a little less remote. This is the task force specifically set up by UK media watchdog Ofcom to scrutinise whether BSkyB still meets its ‘fit and proper’ test for broadcasters. A selloff would be a drastic and unprecedented outcome. But the heightened scrutiny suggests it's not impossible, in a scandal that's already taken plenty of unpredictable turns.

The risk has been apparent since July. It arises because Ofcom's test is applied to a broadcaster's directors and substantial shareholders. Here that would include News Corp, which is BSkyB’s biggest shareholder, and BSkyB Chairman , who until recently chaired the parent company's UK newspaper business, which is at the centre of a worsening British media storm.

If Ofcom decided Murdoch himself posed a problem, his departure from the BSkyB chairmanship would presumably smooth things over. But if Ofcom were to give News Corp itself the thumbs down, a forced sale could follow. However, that would be an extraordinary verdict against one of the world’s biggest media groups. Ofcom’s previous actions — such as banning a small, serially rule-breaking adult-TV firm — are scarcely a precedent.

Any decision is some way off. Ofcom says it doesn't want to pre-empt police, public and parliamentary inquiries. But since the fit and proper test carries a lower burden of proof than a criminal conviction, it wouldn't necessarily have to wait for long-running court cases to conclude. Still, talks about licence revocation could take months more, and would face legal challenges. It’s also not clear if a penalised News Corp would need to shift its entire stake - worth more than £4.6 billion at current prices - or whether selling down below the conventional 30 per cent threshold for control would be sufficient.

The phone-hacking scandal already forced News Corp Chairman , James's father, to abandon his bid for full control of the hugely cash-generative BSkyB. Ofcom could worsen the pain. For BSkyB's outside shareholders, applying even ballpark probabilities to the possible outcomes is a huge challenge. It's uncharted legal territory that’s suffused with politics. But if anything, the uncertainty surrounding the future of News Corp’s holding in BSkyB has increased.

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