James Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp’s European and Asian arms, this week attacked state sponsorship of UK media in the digital age.
Or more specifically, he lambasted the BBC — that thorn in the side of free markets. His argument at the MacTaggart Lecture was, in essence, that government subsidies prevent the press from becoming the best it can be by letting consumers decide what they want to pay for.
It is, he believes, essential for the “future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it”. (Watch his speech in full here, notable for the best tortured trans-Continental accent since Kylie Minogue moved overseas).
The Australian applauded Murdoch for launching a “grenade into the all-media marketplace”:
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The speech delivered by James Murdoch in Edinburgh on Friday should be noted by anyone interested in a vital and independent media and its role in maintaining an open democracy … News is arguing that there must be a charge for internet content and Mr Murdoch went straight to that point in his speech: “Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.” The BBC’s growing dominance online was a threat to pluralist, independent news, Mr Murdoch said.
Yes, no one is sure how to monetise the news anymore. Which is why Rupert Murdoch recently announced News Corp’s intention to paywall online content, a risky business idea, the biggest threat to which is obviously free content. And in Britain, that means the BBC (Rupert’s long-term nemesis).
The great trouble with James Murdoch’s speech — and why it deserves a Wankley — is that he makes the issue one of “independent digital journalism”, “innovation” and “creativity” when it’s also really about business, his business.
We don’t actually know yet whether the online landscape can still support journalism like it used to, paid content or not. So if you remove government-subsidised media operators and let the privately owned operators see what they can do, what if the money doesn’t roll in as planned? You’ve dismantled the system that gives people — all people (even the ones who can’t pay for it) — the news.
After all, free markets aren’t exactly the last word in best outcomes at the moment, as Felix Salmon notes for Reuters blogs. To be fair, he says, the BBC controls too much of the online news market in the UK. Just as Sky monopolises its Pay-TV market.