BBC as ‘Orwellian Threat’ – James Murdoch

August 30, 2009

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James Murdoch concluded his presentation at the Edinburgh TV festival with the words: ‘The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantee of independence is profit.’ He presents BBC as an Orwellian threat to independent journalism

This weekend [Aug 28th 2009], hearing of the speech I did the decent journalistic thing and looked it up in the News Corp press release. All my attempts to cut and paste elements from the text were defeated. It may be as a result of my technological incompetence. Or it may be part of News Corps enthusiasm for pay to view, even for the content of press releases.
Whatever.

So I keyed-in the punch-line all by myself, and turned to the BBC, one of the prime targets in the speech for more information.

What follows has been cut and pasted from the report by the BBC

News Corporation’s James Murdoch has said that a “dominant” BBC threatens independent journalism in the UK.
The chairman of the media giant in Europe, which owns the Times and Sun, also blamed the UK government for regulating the media “with relish”

Organisations like the BBC, funded by the licence fee, as well as Channel 4 and Ofcom, made it harder for other broadcasters to survive, he argued.

“The BBC is dominant … “Other organisations might rise and fall but the BBC’s income is guaranteed and growing.”

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, told the BBC’s World Tonight that Mr Murdoch had underplayed the importance of Sky as a competitor.
“Sky continues to grow and get stronger and stronger all the time so this is not quite a set of minnows and a great big BBC ..[noting that declining advertising revenues in the recession, rather than the corporation, were to blame for the problems facing the commercial media] That is nothing to do with the BBC, that is just to with what’s happening”

News Corporation owns the Times, the Sunday Times and Sun newspapers and pay TV provider BSkyB in the UK and the New York Post and Wall Street Journal in the US. Rupert Murdoch addressed the same festival 20 years ago, and was also critical of the UK’s media policy.

A bit more history

This week, with the death of Teddy Kennedy, I was reminded of the dynastic ambitions of Joe Kennedy for his sons .

There are some parallels between Joe and Rupert in that respect. Both were self-made tycoons. Both were considered single-minded and determined to overcome all obstacles between them and their goals, whatever it took.

LWD has been following the developing story of News Corp and the Murdoch dynasty for leadership lessons which they might offer.

Earlier this month [August 8th 2009] we reported the news that News Corp is intent on creating a new business model which will attempt to charge for on-line content. This is not a new idea, but will require the mix of entrepreneurialism and risk required for radical change.

Earlier posts suggested that son James shared the highly competitive characteristics of his father, although he was not necessarily the first choice as dynastic heir.

He has shown his combativeness in dealings with Richard Branson, another highly successful entrepreneur, but one who tends to blend his own competitiveness with a more cuddly public image than do the Murdoch clan.

However independent, James was sticking pretty close to the corporate line in Endinburgh.

The BBC is like the NHS

Taking on Richard Branson might be called a touch challenge. Taking on the BBC might be considered even tougher. It’s rather like taking on the NHS. A point not lost on Will Hutton who argued in the Guardian

Perhaps one of the most self-serving parts of his speech was when he accused the BBC of being Orwellian. But the BBC is not an arm of the Orwellian state; it is a public corporation committed to fairness and objectivity which is understood worldwide. It would never, like Fox News, a part of the Murdoch empire, broadcast rank half-truths about the NHS under the guise of being balanced and objective – and if challenged argue that it is part of a diverse, plural conversation.

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‘Tell me, Mr Murdoch, when did your father discover his perfect successor?’

December 8, 2007

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James Murdoch is now believed to have been identified as the heir to his father’s media empire, following his appointment as head of News Corp’s European and Asian businesses. What sense can be made of the appointment?

The most powerful man in Britain. The headline from the Daily Telegraph hints at the political as well as the commercial implication of the ascent of James Murdoch to his new post. My own headline is a tribute to the talents of Caroline Aherne in her role as Mrs Merton, a chat-show host with innocently barbed questions to her celebrity guests.

In her discussion with Debbie MacGee, the young wife of the TV magician Paul Daniels, Aherne produced one of the funniest of one-liners.

‘So, what attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’

It would take a Mrs Merton to ask the same sort of question of James Murdoch ‘Tell me, Mr Murdoch, when did your father discover his perfect successor?’ Or maybe: ‘What did he see in his youngest son, now that his older children have rejected any involvement in the family business?’ [OK. I’ve just proved how hard it is to write a good gag, or a good headline].

The Telegraph provided one of the best resumes of the spectacular rise of James Murdoch, and notes the political implications of his coronation.

James Murdoch is stepping down as chief executive of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB to head News Corp’s European and Asian businesses. He will take control of News International, publisher of The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World newspapers, as well as Sky Italia and the Star television business in Asia. He will not sever his ties with BSkyB, however. He replaces his father as non-executive chairman.

That could turn out to be very bad news for Gordon Brown. James Murdoch is an instinctive free-marketeer Tory. Friends say he “talks as if he thinks he is a latter-day Adam Smith”. Thanks to friendships with Al Gore and Bill Clinton, he has developed deep green instincts, which have made him a close confidant of the Tory leader, David Cameron.

The prodigal son?

The younger James showed all the dedication to following his father’s footsteps as did the younger George W Bush. He dropped out of a Harvard visual entertainment course, to found Rawkus, a hip-hop record label. But like Bush, he eventually returned to the fold.

In an earlier post on the Murdoch dynasty I noted

James is the youngest of three Murdoch offspring to a previous marriage. His sister Elisabeth seems the sparkiest of the three, but both she and brother Lachlan seem to have sought more independence, and have broken with promising roles within Murdoch’s media empire. But there may be other candidates to succeed father Rupert, who also has potential heirs from a more recent marriage.

Young James seems to have had a somewhat rumbustious time in his formative years (hardly surprising). His roles in the family firm have been conducted with inevitable publicity. Progress has been swift (hardly surprising). Results have been not totally convincing, but public skepticism has been somewhat weakened through his sure touch in leading the BSkyB business.

The formative years

The Telegraph provides a sketch of a near-stereotype of an over-achiever, shaped through early family influences.

He is fiercely competitive – the result of all those Murdoch family meals when, by his own admission, his father often pits sibling against sibling in a competition for his affection.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more competitive,” says one former colleague. “He’s like a coiled spring. If he thinks he’s being challenged unfairly, he literally stands up at the table in a meeting or even at lunch and wags his finger in his challenger’s face and says: ‘No, no, no. You’re wrong!’ ”

The governance issue

The BBC raises the governance issue as follows:

British investment institutions dislike chief executives becoming chairmen of their respective companies. So Sky’s British shareholders are bound to complain about James Murdoch’s elevation to the chairmanship. However, Sky non-executives have sounded out the group’s leading US shareholders – including Templeton, Capital and Janus – and believe they are supportive of the management re-organization.

But the younger Murdoch comes with good references. Father Rupert is quoted in the Telegraph as saying:

“James is a talented and proven executive with a rare blend of international perspective and deep, hands-on experience in improving operational results,”

Maybe his father would have given such a reply he had been a guest of Mrs. Merton, and had been asked one of those innocent questions on his son’s spectacular rise to business success.


Celebrity journalists as thought leaders: The case of Robert Peston

December 7, 2007

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The Australian journalist Mark Day argues that celebrity journalists today follow far earlier examples. We examine the cases of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill. Parallels with Robert Peston’s role in the Northern Rock drama can be made

Mark Day is the doyen of Australian journalists. He recently raised concerns about the rise of the celebrity journalist, citing cases from Australia, from Rupert Murdoch’s father at Gallipoli to the notorious New York night club story which did the aspirant political leader Kevin Rudd no harm at all. Day suggests TV journalism is continuing the tradition of the celebrity journalist.

It was Mr Day’s reassuringly sage and bewhiskered visage which first grabbed my interest. This, I thought, is the face of someone who speaks with the wisdom of the ages. A role model more callow bloggers. Perhaps it was his headline: Journalists become the news.

Day has his say

Mark Day argues that journalists have always been tempted by celebrity as a route to career success. He cites the example of Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, and war correspondent at Gallipoli, as well as confidant of the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Murdoch ’s capacity to become part of the story is famously illustrated in an incident in which he was charged with delivering a letter from Gallipoli to authorities in London. When ‘Intercepted and relieved of his letter’ he wrote his own extended version, handed it over, when it appeared to have had some influence on British understanding of the unfolding military disaster.

Another time, another land. He might have mentioned the rise of Winston Churchill, already famed as war correspondent, and by then heavily involved in the Gallipoli campaign.

We can stretch things even further in considering the merging of journalism and social comment. Take Charles Dickens, for example, who would have been a great TV personality born a century later.

In these enlightened times

Has much changed from the days of Dickens? Not a lot, according to Day. He gives various contemporary examples from political life in Australia. One interesting one is the incident in New York some months ago, involving the youthful Kevin Rudd, at the time a wannabe Prime Minister. The story was internationally covered.

According to The Daily Telegraph

KEVIN Rudd’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister have been rocked by a visit to a New York strip club where he was warned against inappropriate behaviour during a drunken night while representing Australia at the United Nations. Mr Rudd yesterday issued a statement to The Sunday Telegraph, confirming he went to the club. But he said he could not recall what happened at the night spot because he had “had too much to drink”.

Rudd’s embarrassment was short-lived. He went on to victory a few months later.

Day introduces a further twist to the tale suggesting that the incident which had occurred four years earlier, had been rather sleazily treated by the journalists, who had persuaded the notoriously high-minded Rudd to loosen up a bit. But that’s another story. He concludes that the journalist as part of the story is inevitable, and that blogging is an even more exaggerated process in which each blogger seeks to place themselves right at the heart of the story. I plead the Fifth on that one.

The campaigning journalist

Charles Dickens began his journalistic career reproducing the speeches in Parliament for his readership, a feat requiring phenomenal powers of recall. In the meanwhile, he was churning out hugely popular fictional tales which made up an outstanding social commentary of the times. Dickens as performing celebrity became even more the centre of his stories.

Then there was young Winston, whose exploits seem to have had some parallels with those of the first of the Murdoch dynasty, Keith. Churchill’s reports from the Boar war made him famous and wealthy. His fame outlasted his periodic bursts of affluence. But fame and wealth came from his creative tales in which we wrote himself as the central character. And what about Mark Twain, yet another itinerant journalist whose genius with words excused him from proximity with factual reality as he reported on his journeys?

These were early celebrity journalists. They were at times hugely influential. Another example this time from France, is Emile Zola in exposing the Drefus scandal, In this case, the author used his fame to help promote the story, rather than use the story to promote his fame.

Back to the Rock

All of which takes us back to the still smouldering case of Northern Rock. This appears to have acquired its own celebrity journalist in the shape of the BBC’s Robert Peston. It The story continues to run. Now the BBC is able to maintain a stream of exclusive scoops by interviewing someone right at the heart of the story, namely their very own Robert Peston.

Peston’s influence on events these has been mentioned in Parliament. An overview can be found in a newsletter within which the following quote summarizes the impact of Mr Peston’s journalistic activities

The following press release was issued as Update No. 5 on 18/10/2007: Press049_Northern_Rock_Value (mainly to try and stifle some inaccurate press comment), together with the following notes: Some of you may have seen Matt Ridley and Adam Applegarth responding to questions from the Treasury Select Committee on TV news on Tuesday. Not a lot new was learned from the session except that both the Chairman and the rest of the board had volunteered to resign if required. It was also clear from the evidence given, and comments by Robert Peston of the BBC later that evening on BBC TV, that the BBC announced the rescue by the Bank of England in advance of it being issued in a Regulatory News Announcement based on a leak from someone. I have so far heard three different versions of who leaked it so am not sure which is a rumour and which is the truth. But it would appear that this premature announcement stampeded the company into making the announcement and we know that it was not possibly as judiciously worded as it might have been – the end result was an unexpected rush of depositors to withdraw their cash.

Truth, rumours and Robert Peston

The thought expressed in the above had been nagging away as I followed the Northern Rock story. Clearly, The BBC’s Robert Peston was leading the pack. He must have been the envy of less well-connected political journalists around the land.

But how much is straight reporting, how much highly personalized story telling? He is clearly very much part of the story. Peston is doing no more than the heroic journalists from bygone days, who thrilled the public by not just witnessing the story, but by playing a starring role in it. Not so much communicators as creators.

Stop Press

I was about to publish this post when I heard of a story breaking, on BBC’s radio four, related by a familiar voice, that of Robert Peston. The story? A member of the third generation of Murdoch, young James, is making his mark as celebrity journalist. He becomes head of the Dynesty, and heir apparent.


The Branson Murdoch match: Skirmishes in the opening rounds

April 13, 2007

Sky TV and Virgin Media head for the high court in the opening skirmishes of their contest. Young master Murdoch of Sky defends charges from the charismatic Richard Branson of Virgin Media. The battle will test the charge that BSkyB abused its market position in imposing new charges for some of its services to Virgin Media. The dispute has deprived customers of programmes, and is costing both companies in advertising revenues.

The wider battle can be traced to the relatively recent formation (in April 2006) of Virgin Media, from the ailing NTL cable company. The move was presented as a strategic one which would offer a bundle of services to users. It brought the new company into more direct competition with Sky. Competition in this emerging multi-media context is intricately mixed up with inter-dependence, as services are shared and traded.

Sky promptly acquiring a minority stake in ITV (November 2006). This was seen as a protective strike, as ITV was a take-over target for the newly formed Virgin Media. Branson mutters about spoiling tactics.

Claims and counter-claims followed. For viewers, the spat became serious when Sky and Virgin Media failed to resolve a dispute over re-negotiated charges requested by Sky. Customers of Virgin Media were deprived of the disputed bundle of Sky programmes previously accessed through the former NTL cable service.

Branson versus Murdoch?

It is tempting to portray the dispute as a strategic battle between Richard Branson of Virgin Media and James Murdoch of Sky. If so, the story inevitably presents James Murdoch as Rupert Murdoch’s son and heir apparent.

The reality is more complex. James is the youngest of three Murdoch offspring to a previous marriage. His sister Elisabeth seems the sparkiest of the three, but both she and brother Lachlan seem to have sought more independence, and have broken with promising roles within Murdoch’s media empire. But there may be other candidates to succeed father Rupert, who also has potential heirs from a more recent marriage.

Young James seems to have had a somewhat rumbustious time in his formative years (hardly surprising). His roles in the family firm have been conducted with inevitable publicity. Progress has been swift (hardly surprising). Results have been not totally convincing, but public skepticism has been somewhat weakened through his evidential touch in leading the BSkyB business.

And in the opposite corner …

Richard Branson. Media darling, celebrated entrepreneur, self-publicist, philanthropist , billionaire, business icon. If he wanted it, his catch-phrase for a TV series would be not ‘you’re fired’, but ‘hang around, there’s a party going on here’.

The battle would seem a non-contest, if we were not aware that young James still has his dad, that gnarled old warrior of a hundred successful battles, in his corner.

So what’s going to happen?

Financial sanity will prevail sooner or later. Any battle of the egos will have less ultimate significance than the realities of the bottom lines. The relatively narrow issue of the renegotiated charges for the Sky channels on Virgin Mobile will be resolved, perhaps by a creative bit of face-saving on both sides. Even in the jungle, most fights are biologically programmed so that there is no ultimate victor and fatally wounded loser.