By Pat Stack
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James Murdoch’s Darwin

This article is over 12 years, 3 months old
Last month James Murdoch, son of Rupert and CEO of News Corporation, gave a keynote lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.
Issue 340

Say what you like about him, anyone who quotes George Orwell and Leo Tolstoy, and sources Charles Darwin, Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, the genetic development of the modern banana, and the Levellers (the political movement, not the band) is clearly a man of much gravitas. Or so you’d think.

The lecture, entitled The Absence of Trust, was little more than a right wing rant about regulation of the industry, the evils of the BBC and cost-free websites, and the glories of the free market. The faux intellectualism which was woven into it was half-baked, irrelevant or downright funny.

Funniest of all was the use of Darwin. Murdoch built his entire address around Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, likening the champions of free enterprise to the evolutionists, and the regulators and BBC to creationists:

“Creationism penalises the poorest in our society with regressive taxes and policies – like the licence fee and digital switchover. It promotes inefficient infrastructure in the shape of digital terrestrial television. It creates unaccountable institutions – like the BBC Trust, Channel 4 and Ofcom. And now, in the all-media marketplace, it threatens significant damage to important spheres of human enterprise and endeavour – the provision of independent news, investment in professional journalism, and the innovation and growth of the creative industries.”

Of all the many distorted uses of poor old Darwin, this is surely the most peculiar. Though not nearly as bizarre as the way he sought to show that the genetic shift from the Gros Michel banana to the Cavendish banana in the 1950s was relevant to his argument: “There are important lessons here: attempts to manage natural diversity have unpredictable consequences and are more likely than not to fail over the long term.”

So there you have it: the Murdoch empire is a feature of “natural diversity”! As I say, faux intellectualism at its funniest, but behind it lurks a nasty, reactionary argument.

Murdoch essentially launches a broadside against regulation because it imposes limits and the BBC because it has – through the licence fee – an unfair advantage over its commercial competitors. But his broadsides against regulation are very selective. So he rails against restrictions on the amount and standard of advertising, and the “imposed impartiality of news”, but doesn’t engage with any of the more reactionary regulatory responses of Ofcom towards the BBC. Thus he neglects to say anything about the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand affair, for instance.

Little wonder he doesn’t like rules that prevent advertising disguised as editorial. Anyone who has ever looked at the Sun’s never-ending plugging of Sky under the guise of reviews and previews can just imagine how the Murdoch empire would abuse that process if it could.

As for the impartiality of news, one little fact speaks volumes. During the US presidential campaign, reporters on Fox News frequently referred to “Barack Hussein Obama”, furthering the impression he was a “secret Muslim”.

No doubt they would love to be able to declare after the next general election, “It was Sky wot won it.” Thankfully they can’t.

The great cant of Murdoch’s address was to portray himself as on the side of the little man or the independent producer. The reality is that Sky have gone out of their way to crush all opposition and were able to do so by gaining exclusive rights to Premiership football, which they then fought tooth and nail to preserve.

Let’s be clear. Murdoch wants an unrestricted market because he knows that there would be one undisputed master of that market…Murdoch!

Indeed, he even hates the notion of the BBC putting out freely available news on its websites: “Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.” Yes, the thought that we can all access free services (via the licence fee) must be his ultimate nightmare. For him everything has to have a price, a market value, a profit attached.

Finally he argues that the private sector is a source of investment, talent, creativity and innovation. Yet nobody could accuse Sky of having produced any great talent, any amazing creativity, any breathtaking innovation. They bought a product, football, and poured all their talent, creativity and innovation into it. In the process they blew everyone else, bar the BBC, out of the water.

I subscribe to Virgin and for a while lost the main Sky package (the sport comes separately). Apart from The Simpsons I can’t remember missing anything about the channel whatsoever.

Then again, who am I to judge – with my complete lack of knowledge of the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman?

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