The wrong impression 

5 September 2009 tbs.pm/1097

Public rejects Murdoch view of BBC, says ICM poll

It’s now a week since James Murdoch made his predictably controversial MacTaggart speech that was conceived from the outset to make a real impact, but according to the results of this particular survey, the impact it actually made may not have been what Murdoch was expecting, to put it mildly.

What Murdoch had said in “that speech” was naturally intended to try to bring on board media journalists to the News Corp cause. Short on facts and packed full of rhetoric, it was obviously designed to be a ragbag “pick and mix” of opinions for journalists to propagate their individual takes on the speech to a much wider audience.

Obviously there is a lot of uncertainty in the media world at present, and Murdoch’s speech was calculated to exploit those uncertainties to the maximum in an attempt to create a united front both against the BBC and for News Corp’s causes such as charging for website content. But was it just a case of preaching to the choir?

Newsprint journalists were just one of several media-related groups who sympathized with claims that the BBC was encroaching on their territory, which indeed may be true to a limited extent but the era of newsprint being first with the big stories has long gone. New media beats old for speed of publishing, who would have thought it?

And if certain journalists aren’t moaning about the BBC not sharing their content (hence a limited video sharing deal), attention is instead sometimes focused on aspects which some feel that the BBC ought to leave alone, such as sports news reporting using the PA feed, despite the fact that Sky News, etc., would do exactly the same thing themselves.

Sometimes the BBC just can’t seem to win no matter what they do, but on this occasion the results of this survey are perhaps the strongest indication that James Murdoch’s MacTaggart speech may have backfired badly, although it’s wise to also consider various other factors along with the fact that surveys aren’t always that reliable.

Some have suggested that Murdoch may have actually been giving the BBC some “tough love”, perhaps implying that if the BBC couldn’t stand the onslaught of a rabid right wing attack from one person then it would crumble in the hands of a (presumably) less extreme Conservative administration.

For one thing, Murdoch’s speech did force the Conservatives into issuing a disclaimer relating to the downsizing of the BBC, which in turn may theoretically make a future Conservative-led government less likely to consider any BBC-related downsizing or abolishment proposals that any right wing think tank may come up with.

Despite the “tough love” claims, it still seems unambiguous that the Murdoch clan feel directly threatened by the BBC’s activities at this point of time due to the shifting goalposts of the internet and News Corporation’s proposal to charge for most if not all of their website content.

It is true that traditional newspapers are suffering as a consequence of the growth in popularity of online sources of news, information and entertainment – hence the News Corp website charging plans – but as pointed out before here and elsewhere, the newspaper crisis is currently far worse in America and they don’t have a BBC to blame.

The dwindling influence of newspapers is also another reason why Murdoch is campaigning for less regulation of TV broadcasting (so broadcasts can be openly biased), although the sideswipes directed towards Ofcom may also be connected with its investigation into BSkyB’s activities; another major cause for concern in the Murdoch camp.

Also don’t forget that Murdoch afterwards singled out the iPlayer as a point of contention, which in turn strongly hinted that Project Canvas is also on BSkyB’s radar as being something to discredit and discourage. Which isn’t surprising since that project has the future potential to unseat much of the BSkyB advantage in the field of pay-TV.

However another aspect of old-school print journalism has also gone out of the window as the move to online reporting continues apace, namely that of opinion-forming; popular social networking site Twitter had #welovetheBBC as a popular ‘trending topic’ for a while as a consequence of the Murdoch speech.

More and more people are now used to getting their written news for free – and a good proportion of that audience still trust the BBC News website to deliver on this regard – so any attempt to alienate the “free news” brigade is very likely to backfire just as what happened with file sharing and the music industry.

Despite what some politicians and sections of the media like to think, three-quarters of the population still seem to value the BBC as a useful resource, even though only 40% of those surveyed felt that the BBC hadn’t “dumbed down” in recent years. (A viewpoint that the BBC should ignore at their peril.)

Of course we shouldn’t totally ignore the views of the other 25%, who don’t regard the BBC as being worthwhile or good value for money for whatever reason(s), even if to the BBC they may end up as being forever a lost cause.

Which brings us onto the subject of what and how the BBC might (and should) do to help justify its existence (and that of the licence fee) from this point onwards. Some have suggested that the BBC should now close down all TV channels apart from the main two, but online video services such as the iPlayer aren’t quite yet ready to fill in the gaps.

Dealing with claims of BBC “empire-building” will always be tricky, because even if no new services are launched there will inevitably be conflict of interest accusations. New media has comprehensively blurred the boundaries between TV, radio and the written word, therefore not much can be done to prevent one from encroaching upon the others.

At least in terms of general public perception, James Murdoch’s speech now appears to have enhanced the BBC’s reputation as opposed to damaging it, but there again the rules of engagement between traditional media sources and the public have changed over the past few years.

Also the Murdoch speech may have contained echoes of entrenched institutions attempting to prop up their own self-serving causes, as was previously also the case when banks and bankers tried to defend their actions after the recent financial meltdown which resulted in a fair amount of public derision as a consequence.

So the overall message seems to be that the BBC is still a trusted and valued resource to the majority of the Great British Public, but there is still room for improvement in terms of what the BBC does and how it engages with its audience. Let us hope that the right attitudes prevail when it comes to dealing with the important issues that still lie ahead.