Allergic to regulators

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 01/09/2009
Why James Murdoch is mad at the BBC and Ofcom, but cool with I and B and Doordarshan.
SEVANTI NINAN views his UK outburst through an Indian lens. Pix: James Murdoch

James Murdoch’s sharp attack on Friday night operated at several levels and had echoes for the situation in India.  The 32-year-old heir presumptive to the Murdoch empire took the BBC apart on August 28 while delivering the MacTaggart lecture at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. He targeted public service broadcasting that uses public money to put even other public service competitors at a severe disadvantage,  he attacked regulators, lampooning the reports of Ofcom, he shafted BBC Online for being a free source of news on the Internet.  Overall, he delivered a ringing endorsement of the profit motive as the best guarantor of independent media, which was unsurprising.

Murdoch is as much a leading player on the media scene here as in UK and its worth looking at the range of points he made before focusing on the significant ones. He talked of  the fact that thebroadcasting industry has an insufficient recognition of the digital present, it has analog attitudes in a digital age. He said the truth was that the boundaries between media had broken down, what were once separate forms of communication, or separate media, are now increasingly interconnected and exchangeable. "So we no longer have a TV market, a newspaper market, a publishing market. We have, indisputably, an all-media market."

But his more memorable formulation was on the the regressive impact of  regulation, which he labelled as "creationism."  Harking back to Darwin and the challenge his "The  Origin of Species" provided to Victorian religious orthodoxy of the time, he said the broadcasting sector in the UK was demonstrating the same philosophy of creationism as the Victorians –"the belief in a managed process with an omniscient authority." There was a general agreement, he said, that "the natural operation of the market is inadequate, and that a better outcome can be achieved through the wisdom and activity of governments and regulators."

From this launch pad flowed a tirade on how ominous the BBC’s role was becoming. "The BBC is dominant. Other organisations might rise and fall but the BBC’s income is guaranteed and growing...Channel 4 has cut its programme budget by 10%, Five by 25%. Spending on original British children’s programming has fallen by nearly 40% since 2004, including, inexplicably, a 21% fall at the BBC at a time when the Corporation has been able to spend £100m a year out-bidding commercial channels for US programming - a figure which has increased by a quarter in the past two years."

Creationism, he said, created "unaccountable institutions - like the BBC Trust, Channel 4 and Ofcom". It was the wrong path. And what was the right path? "The right path is all about trusting and empowering consumers. It is about embracing private enterprise and profit as a driver of investment, innovation and independence. And the dramatic reduction of the activities of the state in our sector."  

He offered some sardonic illustrations of how  intervention-happy the British regulator Ofcom had become. He tore into the BBC several times---for not  concentrating on areas where the market is not delivering and seeking to compete head-on for audiences with commercial providers, for trying to shore up support  for a compulsory licence fee.

"Take Radio 2 as an example. A few years back, the BBC observed that it was losing share of listening among the 25-45 age-group, who were well served by commercial stations. Instead of stepping back and allowing the market to do its job, the BBC decided to reposition Radio 2 to go after this same group."

He described how a BBC supported by license fees was against the interests of the poor who had to pay these, and who were perfectly capable of deciding what they wanted to watch. And  how state support to the BBC was squeezing other terrestrial broadcasters and therefore, diminishing choice.

Many of the things he said had echoes for India. Terrestrial Doordarshan too has pretty much gone after the same audiences as as commercial satellite channels, and judges its own performance by the advertising revenues it manages to get. Its prime time does not concentrate on areas where the market is not delivering, it chases advertising like everybody else. But James Murdoch is unlikely to deliver a similar speech here. Instead his lecture had a passing reference to "the growth opportunities in India."

And why should he carp in India? Doordarshan swallows up a lot of good money, but is hardly a threat in the cable and satellite market. Despite a decade of trying, the Indian government has not produced a smidgen of regulation which would threaten the booming Murdoch empire here. And while DD is a terrestrial behemoth like the BBC is, its monopoly is not worth tilting at. The satellite market is paying enough with precious little infrastucture investment.

Also, the British government is probably more inherently democratic about the media than the government in India. The absence of regulation does not stop the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting from simply ordering a channel off the air. Foreign broadcasters here tend to keep their heads down when under attack for allegedly unsuitable programming.  When Sach ka Saamna on the Murdoch channel Star Plus drew flak in Parliament, the channel’s chief executive made placatory noises for public consumption about having the highest respect for parliamentarians. 

So it is unlikely that we will ever be treated to anything similar from the private sector media here, James Murdoch included.  How much free speaking do businessmen do on any issue concerning the government’s powers? Anil Ambani on Murli Deora is very much an exception.

There are some other comparisons worth noting. He talked of pay television’s service to viewers by providing programmes in genres which public service broadcasting served inadequately. Such as news and sports, and arts and drama. "Sky now offers four dedicated arts channels. Original commissioning by channels that customers choose to pay for is expanding and will continue to do so, not just from Sky but from the likes of National Geographic, History, MTV and the Disney Channel, to name a few. Sky alone now invests over £1 billion a year in UK content."  

Well it would be nice if his channels did more elevating stuff here. Think of the Star News record post NDTV—more entertainment than news. And Star Plus’s  contribution to India’s entertainment history, saases, bahus, et al. Apparently the growth opportunities in India which beckon are only those which tie in nicely with what brings advertising. Even while being pay television. And because there is no regulator Star and the others can get away with  showing many minutes of advertising on pay television.

Eloquence gets you attention, and  Murdoch Jr, delivering the same lecture 20 years after Murdoch senior, has succeeded in stirring up the British broadcasting establishment with his aggression. But it is difficult to banish cynicism. The attack on BBC Online---"dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the Internet"-- had everything to do with the aggressive Rupert Murdoch pitch of late on newspapers needing to charge for news on the Net.

Father Rupert 20 years ago, had used the same lecture to assert that television was a business and should not become the preserve of  publicly supported broadcasters. Last Friday his son’s  5000-word peroration ended with this: "And people value honest, fearless, and above all independent news coverage that challenges the consensus. There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit."  

Is honest, fearless, and above all independent news coverage what we see when we tune in to Star News, not to mention Headlines Today, Times Now and India TV? Can’t fault them for being deficient on the profit motive, can we?  







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