Apparently if you’re a media executive, and powerful enough, you can talk as if the global financial crisis never occurred. That may be one of the lessons to emerge from the speech given by Rupert Murdoch’s son (and imperial heir-apparent) James to a gathering of media industry figures at the Edinburgh Festival recently.
Murdoch Jnr’s performance at the Festival’s MacTaggart lecture, where he tore into the BBC, was as zealously pro-free market as it was anarchically delusional. The 40-minute lecture ostensibly addressed the state of media and broadcasting in the UK, which he referred to as "the Addams family" of world media. The comments were quickly rejected by the BBC Trust but plenty of private outlets share his sentiment. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s editorial last Monday was titled "Yes he’s a Murdoch but he has a point", arguing that government-owned media have an unfair advantage over private competitors who are exposed to current upheavals in media business models. So, does he have a point?
There’s no doubt that the speech was primarily self-serving. The BBC is the Murdochs’ long-time British bête noir and he was explicit in his contempt for it. Choice cuts included his calling it "chilling", "mistaken", "bizarre" and "perverse". The main problem he had with the broadcaster, though, was that it represented "state-sponsored journalism", apparently "a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision which are so important for our democracy". What he thought Britain should do instead was deregulate and "embrace private enterprise and profit as a driver of investment, innovation and independence", and begin a "dramatic reduction of the activities of the state".
He went on to plead that we respect the intelligence of media consumers more and trust their ability to make good choices, drawing a comparison with the discoveries of Dutch traffic planner Hans Monderman who did away with road markings and saw an improvement in road safety. The same, he was implying, should be true of British broadcasting — do away with the regulations of Britain’s broadcast regulator, Ofcom, and healthier broadcasting will ensue.
His push for unfettered private enterprise came on the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ofcom, the BBC and Britain’s media landscape is obviously far from perfect. But the last line of his speech — "the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit" — was obviously and hilariously inappropriate. Scratch that, it was wrong. Perhaps he’d already written his speech when G8 governments had to step in to prop up the lethally under-regulated banks, finance houses and stock markets. His is a lone, shrill voice continuing to call for deregulation. His Monderman analogy becomes, therefore, a damp squib, comparing the media landscape to a Dutch suburb without mentioning what might happen when the media regulators’ lines are removed and pedestrians are exposed to a constant snarl of News Ltd semi-trailers.
By demonising the BBC, the implication was that the likes of Sky News was the saviour of democracy. Which it obviously isn’t. As he bashed the Beeb and suggested that the Murdoch media were much better for democracy, society, consumers and broadcasting, a dark, collective thought bubble gathered above the heads of his increasingly fidgety audience. In that thought bubble were two words: "Fox News".
And here’s one of the biggest problems for Murdoch. If he didn’t represent the trenchant interests of Murdoch Senior, all of whose outlets are variously right of centre, right wing, conservative, neo-con and raving mad (that last one refers to Fox News in general and Glenn Beck in particular), his argument would have more traction. It doesn’t help either that these outlets often do his father’s bidding and that they’ll have listened to this speech like an orchestra following the first violin. Others will recall that despite his righteous talk of the role of the Fourth Estate in defending democracy for the people by speaking truth to power, this is the same James Murdoch who condemned Hong Kong’s democratic movement and who has several times defended the Chinese regime. A record like that suggests he’s more interested in speaking praise to the corrupt and influential.
And while he says that an independent media "holds the powerful to account and plays a vital part in a functioning democracy," what he doesn’t say is that anyone who wants to be the British prime minister has to have a secret meeting with Rupert Murdoch to get him and his media onside. Is this good for democracy? Hardly.
Worst of all was that he ducked the question of quality. He didn’t really cite any examples of the successful free-market, independent journalism environment he espoused. Of countries comparable to the UK, the closest thing to his ideal is in the US where regulation is weakest. If he thinks independent broadcasting is doing a better job there of energising democracy, well, he is wrong again. The news networks have been shown to be repeatedly craven, failing to hold the executive to account regarding 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and various presidential elections, while in general being overtly conservative and subjective. Unfortunately, in the US, TV journalism which is broadly objective is tarred as partial and subversive. Surely he can’t seriously think Fox News is a paragon of democratic journalism? The fact that US domestic news is so freaky to anyone not from the US is proof that something is terribly wrong with its broadcast regulation. How do we account for that if not as a result of the failings of the free market?
The BBC and British broadcasting aren’t perfect. But Murdoch Jnr can’t point to a better example of quality broadcasting than the BBC which must be very annoying for him. Murdoch Jnr says we should treat people intelligently and not require them to pay taxes for broadcasting. But is there anything more civilised than a society which has collectively organised, through the payment of tax, something as life-saving as the NHS or something as high-quality and exceptional as the BBC? No, there is not.
According to a Guardian/ICM poll following his speech, 77 per cent of those questioned said they think the BBC is an institution people should be proud of — up from 68 per cent in an equivalent ICM poll carried out five years ago. Most (63 per cent) also think it provides good value for money — up from 59 per cent in 2004.
So that’s what the people think. Keep your eye on a News Ltd outlet to hear more of what James Murdoch and his family think.
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