15.7.11

Media Elite Close The Door

The liberal opponents of Murdoch are out in full force, so keen to join the pogrom against their bête noir that they are willing to destroy press freedom in the process.

No less an authority than Martin Wolf in the Financial Times argues with a straight face:

“Diverse media require diverse ownership. But economic forces may generate a degree of concentration incompatible with desirable diversity… (and one sentence later) At worst, the proprietor may so twist and distort this needed communication as to transform public life. I would argue that the Fox network’s rightwing populism has done just that in the US. This should not happen in the UK.”

There you have it: a liberal journalist arguing against diversity in the media.

Leave aside the fact that Fox is pitted against three incumbent national channels which espouse an identical viewpoint. Look at the shape of UK media before Murdoch came on the scene.

The UK media of the 1970s was a closed shop. Not just in union terms but in outlook. It did not reflect the world I lived in.

I grew up a sceptic, after a childhood that had observed racial war in Nigeria, military dictatorship in Brazil, and playboy revolutionaries in the Caribbean.

Tribal, racist and introverted

I was educated in an England that was fighting a civil war with its Irish kin, and went to university in London where Irish classmates were resigned to their letters arriving opened, and where applicants for jobs at the BBC would later find they had been turned down on the advice of the security services because they had joined the wrong Chinese friendship society in which to test their language skills.

I still recall reading the press of the 1970s. It did not try to tell the story of what was happening on its doorstep. As an outsider myself, I struggled to make sense of reports of bullets and bombs, frontline reports of how Special Branch had arrested men in Birmingham, soldiers had put down riots in Londonderry, and the litany of open and shut cases against Irish sympathizers that would decades later be shown to be a sham.  No context or analysis, let alone an even hand.

The British press was tribal, elitist, racist, and introverted.

Like a know-it-all public schoolboy who had never travelled beyond these shores, the British press was an expert on the world because Britain had once had an empire. A snob who took it as read that Britain was best in everything, corruption was something that happened in India, and leaving nothing to debate or criticize at home.

Healthy disrespect

That changed with, but not only because, of Murdoch.

His battle to free newspapers from union domination was unpopular but necessary – and more newspapers are alive today because Murdoch won that battle.

But more than technology, more than money, great newspapers require social mobility.

Murdoch brought an outsider’s healthy disrespect for deference. Clearly that went too far in the News of The World scandal. But any honest journalist knows that the Daily Mail used the same techniques, that the Observer used private investigators along with many newspapers that had nothing to do with Murdoch.

Any student of business knows that competition will spread practices throughout an industry until it becomes common practice, in banking just as in newspapers.

Wolf states that, “the BBC.. defines the notion of a public weal; and we should consider whether the public good of high-quality news gathering and analysis deserves public support”. 

Break the mold

Good for the BBC but is that an argument for further strengthening an already dominant state broadcaster?

If the media is too important to be left to dominant proprietors, who in the future will break the mold?

Now would be the worst time to draw up the drawbridge, at a time when social mobility has been in reverse for two decades.

The mobility that allowed Britain’s greatest editor of the past half century, Harold Evans to rise through grammar school to edit the Sunday Times is in retreat.

And the media elite, who played the same tricks in the same playground, are happy to push out an outsider, and to close the door to anyone, foreign or home bred, who can challenge the dominance of the entrenched providers they control.

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