British broadcasting deserves better than Murdoch attack

September 2, 2009

barnettSteven 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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It is a remarkable experience to sit in a Dubai taxi and note that the Pakistani driver gets his news from the BBC World Pashtu service. The Murdochs I am sure would have no interest in spreading an objective world viewpoint to such a wide audience. I think it wrong that the Murdoch empire should control so many newspaper titles and limit peoples choice of news sources. If they love their own viewpoint so much they should have entered politics

Posted by Terry | Report as abusive

I totally agree with this analysis of the Murdoch speech. Blatant commercial opportunism on Murdoch’s part. It never ceases to stagger me that people beleive what they hear /read at face value and that people like Murdoch exploit this in such a blatant way! People always knock institutions such as the BBC (and others like the NHS), but in reality if you sit down and compare programmes across the channels the terrestrial chammels like the BBC and ITV often put out top quality shows e.g. Coast, Top Gear, The Street etc. But that just doesn’t make for interesting reading does it!!

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

I don’t have Sky and I don’t have cable because I choose not to subscribe to them however I’m forced under threat of fines or prison if I don’t pay for the mighty BBC. Sorry but the left wingers here who think that is right should live in a communist country where they can be happy to force it on people however this clearly isn’t acceptable here!

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Terry, you are absolutely right! Who is this man Murdoch anyway? As far as I can see I go to the cinema and watch a film from a News Corp company, buy a newspaper and it is owned by…News Corp and it goes on and on and on… is time the Murdoch empire was stopped in its tracks from world domination. I find it infuriating that to watch football and films I love they ask me to subscribe to tatty SKY !! WHY does anyone have to subscribe to SKY ?? They show HUGE amounts of advertising and thus get large amounts of revenue, so why do they want to eztract even more money from the public by demanding a subscription = I’ll tell you why – because they can – because there is no REAL competition with these animals. They (just like other well-known and equally-hated big organisations) have purchased their competitors and then closed them down. I don’t think this should be allowed – it is against everyone’s interests for any one organisation to have a total unassailable monopoly like this.

Posted by Larry | Report as abusive

As both a brit living in the US and a previous objector to the ‘state tax’ imposed in the form of the licensing fee I can honestly now say that it was the best value service available anywhere in the world. US journalism is largely nothing more than personal opinions spun to fit a Democratic or Republican view with any naysayer being merely shouted down. If you are liberal stay as far from Fox (Mr Murdoch) as you can and similarly if you are anywhere right of centre try watching CNN at your peril ! The BBC may be somewhat obese with too many over paid people, it may be slightly left leaning, it may be charged for in the form of the licensing fee but similarly it is mature, reasoned, open, honest, without adverts every 5 minutes and most importantly it is not based on a he who shouts loudest with the ‘right’ politics for that channel. BBC, it should be renamed as Bloody Brilliant Creation in my view.

Posted by Justin | Report as abusive

Brilliant article! I do find it amazing that Murdoch et al can complain about the BBC and a restriction to the free market that at the same time in the guise of Fox News in the US can display such biased journalism.

You should write for Private Eye, or do you already. Would the world be better without the Murdoch’s empire? I don’t think so, we would have nothing to complain about. Just don’t buy the Times, Sun, News of the World or watch Sky. They would soon get the message.

Well done again.

A thoroughly happy non-sky customer

Posted by Ian Winterburn | Report as abusive

“massive, state-funded intervention”

Coming from the man who’s company is the official mouthpiece for one political party only in America? Fox (or more correctly: Faux) News.

I don’t like the BBC’s current funding structure but if that’s what it takes to ensure the world has an alternative news source to the Right Wing Extremism of News Corp / News International then I guess I’ll have to suffer that. You’re reading this here because I like Reuters for my news (a decent commercial media organization when compared to Murdoch’s insidious empire)

Right now in America Fox news is lying about British health care to Americans to deny those Americans something that we Brits think of as a basic right.

If the Sun tried to close the NHS in Britain we would vilify the paper and yet the same company is denying Americans a chance to know the truth.

It’s not just about Journalism it’s about being decent human beings. None of which appear to be in the employ of Murdoch.

Posted by Martin | Report as abusive

Well said! News Corp’s BSkyB alone in the UK already generates almost as much revenue as the rest of the entire TV sector put together (about 5.4bn pounds compared to the 5 bn generated by ITV et al and Licence Fee money spent by the BBC on TV). And that’s before you look at News Corp’s newspapers, films, online activities (e.g. MySpace), merchandising, the ITV ownership stake, production, DVDs, books, TV advertising sales, other TV channels (e.g. Nat Geo) etc, etc. BSkyB already has a 72% share of the multichannel TV market. As a direct result of its position News Corp has a huge influence over UK Government policy (regardless of political party) but they are not even uK citizens. And despite all this Murdoch Jr has the cheek to say with a straight face that he thinks the BBC is chilling. Incredible.

Posted by P Star | Report as abusive

“I can honestly now say that it was the best value service available anywhere in the world.
September 3rd, 2009 8:55 pm GMT – Posted by Ian Winterburn ”

All left wingers do because you force an entire country to subsidise what you happen to like watching. I’m just surprised you don’t force people to pay a newspaper tax to fund your left wing rag too.

Posted by John | Report as abusive