News Corp’s global assets in book publishing, real-estate and television prop up its newspapers. But the company’s journalism assets ultimately have to stand on their own feet to  be sustainable, CEO Robert Thomson said in Melbourne last night.

Speaking at a RMIT Alumni evening, Thomson was in his element. He spoke of his childhood country Victoria, his early years in journalism, and his fondness for the institution that invited him. He was charming and self-effacing. Like any home-grown Victorian, Thomson knows AFL. He went to school in St Kilda, but his allegiances lie elsewhere. “If you want to go to the top, you have to support Essendon,” he told interviewer and RMIT chancellor Ziggy Switkowski. He described himself as an “accidental journalist”, one who fell into the profession because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after school. His first job was as a copyboy, but he quickly rose up the ranks. At age 24 he was the Fairfax correspondent in China, and, well, the rest is history.

He faced a largely sympathetic grilling by Switkowski, but questions from the audience were more critical. Asked whether media organisations merely profit off the misery of society rather than doing anything to make it better, he said a lot of Australia’s News Corp papers did make society a better place. He nominated the Herald Sun, which has recently undertaken a campaign on domestic violence. “There was a lot of intelligent, sympathetic coverage in a mass-market paper,” Thomson said. And anyway, “when papers don’t make money, they fire journalists”.

Thomson is concerned about the loss of experience and depth of reporting in newspapers. He said when he went to Beijing (in the early 1990s), even local American papers had a correspondent there. But you’d never see that today. He gave the example of the business pagers in many newspapers, which have become a home for “cheesy personal finance” stories, like “10 ways to reduce your tax”. “That’s not investigative journalism. There’s fewer facts and more argument.”

In this, he paid tribute to his boss Rupert Murdoch, who he said had continued his vast investment in serious journalism even when it wasn’t profitable. “If it wasn’t for Rupert, the Times of London wouldn’t be published today,” Thomson said (Thomson is a former editor of the Times).

Later, after the event, Thomson said News Corp was profitable because of its cross-subsidisation, but that journalism should ultimately pay for itself. “Otherwise, it depends on someone’s personal passion or sense of responsibility [to keep the cross-subsidisation going].” And the whole thing would be a lot easier if the money from viewing content through new platforms went to the content creators rather than the distributors.

That’s a jibe at Google. Last month, Thomson wrote to regulators in Europe saying Google was “stifling competition” and demanding action on its dominance of search. Speaking yesterday, Thomson repeated his claim that the company had “a platform for piracy”.

“If Google has an immense amount of intimate detail about what you do and they sell that detail, how can they not know which sites are pirate sites? In the end, it’s in the interests of all people who create and access content to make sure there’s a constant flow of great content.”

During his speech Thomson had said that on average, 25% of those who paid for creative content like Game of Thrones also pirated it. Crikey asked him if given this statistic, he believed content creators should be held responsible for making their content accessible easily and quickly, if for no reason than to avoid those who paid for it becoming familiar with the mechanics of accessing that content illegally.

Thomson said you couldn’t overcome a familiarity with pirating, so the solution was a broader cultural shift in people’s attitudes. He asked why ISPs weren’t behaving like Village Roadshow and taking out full-page ads in the newspapers urging people not to pirate content. “You need to have a cultural check.”

“You should think, I may be getting it 24 hours ahead because I’ve pirated the US version, but why shouldn’t I wait 24 hours?”

Peter Fray

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