British broadcasting deserves better than Murdoch attack

September 2, 2009

barnett- Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster, and a writer and commentator on broadcasting issues. He is finishing writing a book “Just Wires and Lights? The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism” that will published by Sage in 2010. The opinions expressed are his own. -

I was in the audience for Murdoch senior’s MacTaggart lecture 20 years ago, and was shocked –- as were many others –- by the ignorance and shallowness of his analysis. It wasn’t just the blatant self-interest of promoting his newly launched Sky channels; it was the sheer incomprehension of British television’s achievements in broadcast journalism compared to its manifest failure in the United States. Murdoch senior pretended it was the other way round, a strange distortion of the empirical evidence.

Son James is clearly a chip off the old block. His MacTaggart lecture was adapted for modern times, but his analysis of what was “wrong” with British broadcasting –- and particularly broadcast journalism –- was as misguided and self-deluded as his father’s.

There was the usual stuff about free enterprise, free choice and freedom in general being undermined by “massive, state-funded intervention”, and the usual claptrap about the TV licence fee penalising the poor (in fact, it provides astonishingly good consumer value and is disproportionately valuable to the poorest who make most use of television).

There was a marked inability –- presumably deliberate –- to understand the difference between state-sponsored broadcasting and the BBC as an institution which has demonstrated over 80 years a greater willingness to take on governments than most of the country’s press. And there was the 50 year old caricature of public service broadcasting as a paternalistic instrument which ignores “the customer” and treats viewers as passive creatures “in need of protection”. British viewers, through millions of freely made switching decisions per week, in fact demonstrate an abiding affinity for the BBC which Murdoch pere and fils would prefer to ignore.

Perhaps the most damaging nonsense was when James talked about the threat to “investment in professional journalism” created by the BBC’s presence. Really? If so, we would expect the broadcast networks of the world’s great engine-room of business and free enterprise, the United States, to be overflowing with investment in ground-breaking, independent journalism. After all the marginalised, desiccated channels of Public Broadcasting Service are certainly no threat to the might of the private sector.

Unfortunately, the truth is exactly the opposite. Investment is dropping, foreign bureaux are closing, and senior network news executives in the U.S. look with envy (and some admiration) at the quality of broadcast news over the Atlantic. One recently told BBC director general Mark Thompson that there will soon only be two sources of foreign news –- the BBC and the news agencies. So much for investment.

As for independence –- we really shouldn’t be lectured by an organisation which pulled the BBC off its Star satellite in Asia to placate the Chinese authorities who were being assiduously courted by Murdoch senior (plus other accommodations to that authoritarian regime, as recorded in Bruce Dover’s wonderfully revealing book “Rupert’s Adventures in China”).

The Murdochs are not enemies to journalism, and should be applauded for continuing to invest in journalists when many around them are moving rapidly in the opposite direction. But scoring easy hits on an internationally admired institution –- with laughable arguments about the undiluted virtues of the private sector -– marks them out as no more than industrial bullies determined to sweep away obstacles to their own business land-grab. British broadcasting deserves better.

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