James and his giant speech – the future of UK media

October 7, 2009

“People consume content in a very fluid way, and that is reflected in the way we provide it. 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.”

So said James Murdoch in his recent MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

This tumultuous synthesis of content, he argued, should in theory produce “a dynamic, exciting and thriving” media sector. But modern media, particularly the UK broadcasting sector, was fettered by regulation and constrained by reactionary thinking – a kind of “media creationism”. He decried the rule makers, such as Ofcom, that control content, impose heavy regulations on advertising and impose their own version of freedom of speech on broadcasters.

Murdoch then backed his ideological trebuchet against the walls of the BBC to toss over a series of verbal rotten cabbages: the broadcaster was indulging in a media land grab, killing off competition and undermining journalistic independence. All of this was effectively bankrolled by the state and presided over by an impotent governing body, the BBC Trust.

And sounding like a Gordon Gekko throwback he concluded: “The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

This final dictum is a ballsy call given that the profit motive is in seriously bad odour at the moment and its very unclear whether markets, financial, media or otherwise are capable of self healing. But my real issue with the argument of Murdoch, son of the media mogul and News Corporation’s chairman and chief executive in Europe and Asia, concerns his comments about the position of the customer in all of this.

He says that in the regulated world of public service broadcasting the customer is a passive creature, whose needs are served by a kind of benign dictator. In the ‘real’ world, including pay television and newspapers, the customer chooses what they want and gets what they pay for. “And because they have power they are treated with great seriousness and respect,” he says.

At this late stage let me declare a personal interest. For more than a month since moving house I have been attempting to have Sky broadband installed at my new address. The whole experience is too painful and dull to relay in detail, but suffice to say that after literally hours spent on the phone re-explaining my request to a series of customer service advisers, Sky were unable to provide the service and I have moved to another provider. Google ‘Sky complaints’ and you will see my case is very far from unique.

I will watch the media debate unfold with great interest and while I cannot pretend to know the outcome, I am certain I shall not being doing so via a Sky provided service. Seriousness and respect is a nice soundbite, but where’s the customer service? This is one punter that’s voting with his monthly direct debit.