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Media wars: The anti-Murdoch unholy alliance, Part 1

October 21, 2010

LONDON, UK, Oct 21, 2010/ Troy Media/ – It’s not as if the Western print media wasn’t already in deep mire, clutching at business straws in the digital age. Lately, however, much of the British, U.S. and Canadian print and broadcast media have come together in an unholy alliance of left and right in a desperate bid to defeat the “evil” empire of News Corp.  and its devious mastermind Rupert Murdoch.

Why? Because many, especially in the print media, fear yet more growth (and success) for Murdoch will only hasten their demise.

They may be right, but not for the reasons most think – and here’s why.

It was the U.S. mainstream media (MSM) that gave birth to the first semblance of a serious anti-Murdoch media alliance. In the wake of the meteoric rise of Murdoch’s Fox TV News, they didn’t pause to ask themselves “why the Fox success?” They merely despised it. It was leading liberal media mogul Ted Turner who famously predicted that his CNN would “squish Murdoch like a bug” in the ratings war. But it was CNN’s ratings that Murdoch ended up wiping from beneath his shoe – en route to seeing Fox dominating U.S. cable news and threatening the networks, as it does today.

Heaven forbid that audiences that “vote with the remote” might know better than ideological media elites which news media voices might be “most trusted.”

Murdoch-aphobia

Meanwhile, due north, much of the Canadian broadcast media has recently jumped on the anti-Murdoch bandwagon, deprecatingly dubbing Quebecor Media’s launch of (conservative) Sun TV in January 2011 “Fox News North”. Not that Murdoch’s News Corp. is in any way connected with the Quebecor/Sun initiative, you understand. It seems the mere shadow of Fox’s success, due south, is enough to spook Canada’s broadcast-media henhouse. We’ll get back to Canada’s Sun TV later.

Over the pond, much of the British broadcast media have lately caught a bad dose of Murdoch-aphobia. In June, Murdoch – widely nicknamed “the Digger” -  proposed a bid of £8 billion to buy the 60 per cent of BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting Group) he did not already own. The move prompted an unprecedented coalition of the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV broadcasters, and much of the left and some of the right-leaning press, to sign a joint letter calling for the government to keep Murdoch from gaining 100-per-cent control of Sky. Leaving aside the fact of the dubious involvement of the BBC, a public-service broadcaster, in private sector arrangements, Britain’s media regulator Ofcom has already acknowledged that Murdoch’s 40-per-cent majority stake in Sky already allows him the right to appoint its chief executive (son James is its CEO), and thus strongly influence its culture. If so, we have yet to see it.

The problem for the anti-Murdoch alliance in Britain is that media rules have always considered the broadcast and print media as separate entities. But Murdoch’s pioneering ownership across the trinity of broadcast, print (he owns The Times, Financial Times and tabloids The Sun and News of the World) and his move into broadband has led to the charge that a full Sky takeover would jeopardise “media plurality”. The great fear is that through cross-platform subscriptions and advertising, News Corp. has the potential to enhance its market clout even further by, say, bundling newspaper sales for The Times into a joint subscription package – something no other media group can do.

Fears over “journalistic integrity,” however, just don’t stack up in Britain. Even with son James as Sky CEO, there are no discernible editorial differences between Sky, ITV and the BBC. All three lean left in their news reporting and analysis. Equally, Murdoch’s Sun newspaper supported New Labour, not the Conservatives, during the Blair years; years when the Conservative Party was further right-of-centre than it is today under David Cameron. And anyone reading the modern incarnation of The Times would be struck by its liberal values.

Not that this latest media war is a “fair and balanced” struggle about democracy and genuine debate in the public square – if only it were. If propaganda and bias were really the concern in Britain, the BBC would have lost its “public service” broadcast licence years ago. Whole Web sites exist to document the BBC’s left/liberal culture of bias in its reporting on Israel, climate, poverty, race and religion. Even its own internal reports confirm its ongoing biases. Only last month, the BBC had to be told again to be far more balanced in its coverage of the climate issue. Against this background, concerns over “journalistic standards” at Sky, especially its “Foxification,” are laughable.

The Murdoch legacy 

Many in the media have a short memory. In the 1970s it was Murdoch who took on and broke the choking grip of Britain’s Fleet Street unions. Without him, British print journalists would still be elbow deep in ink and antiquated practices. It was Murdoch’s BSkyB group, too, that finally broke the tedious BBC/ITV duopoly, introducing genuine competition.

Murdoch’s editor at The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, entering the media fray on his employer’s behalf, points out, “The reality is that Sky owns very few of the channels it broadcasts, and many of the stations have minute audiences.” No shrinking violet, MacKenzie goes on to describe Murdoch’s rivals as mostly “business duds” compared to Murdoch. He has a point. But it is Simon Jenkins – no friend to the proposed Murdoch bid and writing in the strongly left-wing Guardian – who hits the nail on the head, writing: “Murdoch is the best thing that ever happened to the British media, and they hate it.” Jenkins goes on, “The truth is that the British media has been stumbling and grumbling along in Murdoch’s wake, letting him bear the risks and then riding on the back of his success.”  Ditto America?

The fact is that if the philosophy of broadcast- and print-media separation endures, then a News Corp. takeover of Sky would simply not create in Britain the Murdoch-dominated broadcast-media world the anti-alliance fear.  If, in the new digital world, News Corp’s dual broadcast and print businesses are viewed collectively, however, then a change of the rules is needed to protect consumer interests, and the anti-Murdoch alliance may have a case.

But I believe something much more important is at stake in this particular media war.

Look for Media Wars: Democracy, part 2.   

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