July 18, 2011

JANET DALEY: Media Pile-On On Murdoch Is About Eliminating An Ideological And Commercial Rival. Well, yes. “This has gone way, way beyond phone hacking. It is now about payback. Gordon Brown’s surreal effusion in the House last week may have made it embarrassingly explicit, but the odour of vengeance has been detectable from the start: not just from politicians who have suffered the disfavour of Murdoch’s papers, or the trade unions (and their political allies) who have never forgiven him for Wapping, but from that great edifice of self-regarding, mutually affirming soft-Left orthodoxy which determines the limits of acceptable public discourse – of which the BBC is the indispensable spiritual centre. . . . . But the power of the BBC – and its historical hatred for the ‘Murdoch empire’ – is just one aspect of a larger battle which has now leapt across the Atlantic, where the target is not newspapers which can be legitimately charged with having committed unconscionable acts, but Fox News. Its offence is to have filled such a huge gap in the market for television news and current affairs that it has swept all before it. Its raucous Right-wing orientation is, in fact, matched by an equally raucous Left-wing equivalent in the cable news channel MSNBC, so why should anyone who believes in open and free debate among news providers object to this?” It’s about ensuring the absence of alternate power centers.

UPDATE: British reader James Spiller writes:

I was glad to see you linking to a rare article that mentions how ridiculous the BBC makes the fear of “too much media power being concentrated in one man” seem. It’s partly that, unlike Murdoch’s ill-fated proposed TV channel ownership, the BBC is an overt monopoly in the UK. It is not just that their many TV and radio channels dominate the mediums, but also that there is a legal compulsion to purchase their services if you purchase the services, or own equipment that allows you to purchase the services, of any of its rivals. Ma Bell had it good, but Independent Telephone Company customers did not have to buy them, too. Standard Oil did OK, but filling your tank with Gulf or Texaco gas didn’t enrich the Rockefellers.

Worse than merely being a uniquely powerful commercial monopoly in the western world, the BBC serially abuses its monopoly in ways that Murdoch would never dream of. All advertising on UK BBC channels, from the lowliest micro targeted local radio station to the flagship television channels and websites. By removing all commercial advertising, they enhance the power of their cross media subsidization. Charity events that get employees to work for their monopoly employer for free would be a caricature of abuse in any other sector, but is a mainstay of BBC success.

News International’s three newspapers operated in a fiercely ideologically competitive market and did not cooperate with each other. For instance, in the 1997 election, the Sunday Times supported John Major, the Sun switched to support Tony Blair 6 weeks before the election, and the News of the World supported Blair throughout. The Times leaned slightly towards Major, but was more neutral than the Sunday Times. Rivals of News International dominated the market and supported a variety of positions allowing people of most political persuasions and cultural leanings represented in the UK to buy a newspaper that supported them. In contrast, the BBC monolithically supported Blair, and the relatively minor rival television channels offered only fairly similar perspectives (although Channel 4 news could sometimes be a little more centrist; sort of a WaPo to the BBC’s NYT). There is no dimension of monopoly power that Murdoch held that could have rivaled the BBC’s, and no aspect of abuse that he could have stooped to without the BBC having gone well beyond him.

Even if we have to have our entertainment and news being dominated by a state owned entity whose fees are collected by mandate rather than by attracting customers, there’s no reason that the BBC should not be split up and have the license fee allocated to a variety of different state owned companies. If there is one good thing that has come out of this, it may be that the excited words of Murdoch haters may come back to form a key support for radical reform of the BBC.

One can hope.