Murdoch and the law of unintended consequences

With all the furore going on about phone hacking,editorial  cover-ups, police corruption and the dangers of politicians being too close to the media, we are witnessing a firestorm of criticism about British newspapers.  As my students will attest, I rarely speak up for newspaper journalists, having had a somewhat fraught relationship with them for most of my professional career. But, is there a danger of going overboard? Every politician now claims to loathe the Murdochs and the bandwagon is really rolling on the subject of “media plurality”, as if new owners of newspapers or TV could be conjured out of thin air. Many politicians are arguing against foreign ownership of “our papers”, whilst others declare piously that media owners shouldn’t be able to control both newspaper and television channels. Virtually every media competitor of Murdoch (including the BBC) has rubbed their hands in glee at the withdrawal of the News Corporation bid for the rest of BSkyB.  Big brand advertisers are falling over themselves to disassociate themselves from News International papers, and investors in New York and elsewhere have taken fright and wiped some 15% of the market price off News Corp shares.

I am wondering if all the fuss is going to lead to some pretty dire consequences. The result may actually be the closure of not just the News of the World, but a whole lot of other newspapers which are no longer viable in print form unless they are subsidised by international media groups with significant revenues or foreign owners with deep pockets. Cross platform ownership is about the only thing that has kept Channel 5 on air. Murdoch papers are kept alive by the income he is willing to invest in them, to cover their losses, and that income derives from other media channels. The Independent owes its continued existence to a Russian, a former KGB operative. Just how he could be deemed “fit and proper” to own a newspaper should also be called into question if the Competition Commission starts to challenge the likes of James Murdoch or his father. 

While attention in the media is fixated on how the mighty are falling, one of the consequences may be an attitude that actually makes newspapers even less viable as a business than they were before.  Lest we forget, the phone hacking scandal was caused by the pressing need to sell papers; whatever was needed to get the circulation up and the revenues in was justified.  While individuals will be found guilty of crimes, the editorial pressure of a failing business model is the ultimate guilty party.

In a self-righteous attempt to “clean up the media”, politicians would be well advised to realise that if they take measures to extremes, they may just be writing the death warrant for an industry already struggling to keep afloat.  Wouldn’t we miss newspapers if they were no longer there?

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About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

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