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Murdoch vs Peston; but how do we really sustain public interest journalism?

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Reading reports about the alleged dust up between James Murdoch and Robert Peston in Edinburgh one gets the impression that their views about the future of UK media were diametrically opposed to one another. Yet reading their speeches in full (Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture and Robert Peston’s Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture) one is struck by the frequency with which they agree.

Both emphasise that the lines that used to divide print, broadcast and digital are disappearing. “Broadcasting is now part of a single all-media market” Murdoch said. Peston made the same point but directed it more at journalism: “the traditional distinctions between television journalists, radio journalists and print journalists are quite close to being obsolete”.

Both also noted how digital convergence is a fact of life for the producer if not yet for all consumers. “Even if part of the consumption of media remains in the analogue world”, Murdoch said, “…the production of those creative works is already wholly digital”. Anyone thinking of joining the industry, Peston said, should not, “think of themselves as wanting to be broadcast journalists, or radio journalists or print journalists: [because] increasingly it’s all the same thing”. “[I]n national and international news,’ Peston continued, “convergence has in a very fundamental sense already happened for TV, radio and newspapers. We all do video, audio and the written word.”

And both recognised the unsustainability of contemporary media regulation. Peston was very clear; “Old regulations don’t fit the new media world”. For Murdoch, “we [in the UK] have analogue attitudes in a digital age” and a regulatory framework that constrains “enterprise, free choice and commercial investment”.

Where they differed, of course, was in their attitudes to how this regulation might change. For Murdoch the – rather simplistic – answer to regulatory inconsistency was to get rid of all regulation (well, almost all. Murdoch would like the government to crack down on illegal downloaders). Remove regulation, and cut the BBC down to a fraction of its current size and, Murdoch argued, the UK would release a fountain of pent-up creative energy and investment.

One wonders how familiar Murdoch is with the US. For someone who spends half his life on a plane it seems strange he does not make reference to the crisis in funding of journalism there. Few news organisations have successfully been able to charge for content in the States, despite the lack of a BBC. Still, he could justifiably counter that there has been more investment in innovation in the US, and more urgency to find new digital business models.

Peston’s attitude towards regulation is rather less apocalyptic. Peston is no Pangloss but he does not, like Murdoch, see regulation as inherently regressive. Indeed Peston remarks on the fantastic failure of market mechanisms to prevent financial collapse in 2007/08. Yet though Peston feels uneasy about significant media deregulation, he recognises that his uneasiness ‘may not be rational’. For such decisions to be made rationally, Peston suggests, we need ‘a robust new way of measuring market share’. A sensible observation that could be extended beyond market share to measurement of output. Peston is also, as one might expect, rather less down on the BBC.

Missing from both speeches was a realistic vision of how best to sustain public interest journalism in the digital age. Murdoch made very clear what he was against, but his easy solution to the crisis in news – deregulate – was unconvincing. Peston gave us an insight into the eye of the crisis – from someone who has been in the middle it – but not a route out.

Helpful as it may be to bring attention to the ongoing woes of the media – and news in particular – we need more ideas about where to go next. Whether or not you disagree with the Press Associations public service reporting initiative, or with Ofcom’s proposals for IFNC’s, at least they represent attempts to work out how to solve the ‘democratic deficit’ problem. That problem is likely to become even more acute this autumn whatever the government’s approach to liberalization of media ownership.

Written by Martin Moore

September 2nd, 2009 at 7:22 am

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