Posted tagged ‘Rupert Murdoch’

News of the World, and the state of democracy

July 15, 2011

Guest blog by Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Lecturer in Physics at Waterford Institue of Technology

The News of the World scandal and the demise of that paper brings a much larger issue to the fore: the enormous influence of media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, and their political viewpoints.

For example, it has been claimed that at the time of the first Lisbon treaty referendum journalists at The Sunday Times, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential, could not get pro-treaty articles published. The Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential in business circles in the US, regularly publishes prominent editorials by a tiny group of climate change skeptics. On the BSkyB takeover, Mr Murdoch has stated that, if successful, he would like its news delivery be more like Fox News.

Does any of this matter? Surely as long as every citizen has the facility to choose which newspaper/TV/radio station they are informed by, there isn’t a problem? I think there is a problem. I really distrust the modern idea that strong political bias in the media is OK as long it is balanced by other viewpoints in other media outlets (a principle memorably articulated by the journalist Kevin Myers). In other words, it’s OK if this newspaper/channel gives you this slant, because balance is provided by another paper/station that gives a different slant.

The problem is that as one listens to a favourite radio station, TV station or newspaper, one’s views are reinforced instead of tested and questioned…so positions become more and more entrenched and polarized. Have you ever noticed that protagonists in a TV debate seem to be coming from parallel universes that do not intersect? This is often because they choose to be informed by different sources and therefore cannot agree on the basics.

If science and technology operated like this, planes would fall out of the sky. At some stage opinion should be constrained by the facts, as far as they can be established. ‘You have a right to your own opinion, not your own facts’, as an Irish politician memorably said recently. Yet as a scientist, I regularly encounter media pronouncements on scientific issues that are totally at odds with well-established facts, most obviously in the area of climate science.

Doesn’t independent editorship have a role to play? It should do, but I see less and less evidence of it, at least in English-speaking countries. It’s an interesting exercise to compare directly articles on the same subject in organs such as the NYT and The Wall Street Journal, or The Guardian and The Times; it’s impossible not to notice that differences in outlook have long since strayed beyond what used to be called the opinion columns.

There is a legal aspect to this that puzzles me. Many years ago, we introduced laws to protect the individual from slander or libel. If I publicly accuse Ferdinand von Prondzynski of stealing my cat, I need supporting evidence to prove my statement or I am I trouble. However, I can make public statements with impunity on science (say) that are completely false, because no individual was defamed. Yet such statements can do tremendous harm to society, whether they be on the dangers of tobacco or on global warming (I draw a distinction between denialism and skepticism here).

It’s interesting that The Irish Times, a paper that is considered reasonably balanced by many colleagues over here in the US, is owned by a trust. For example, the IT syndicates a column from a prominent US republican every few years, alternated with one from a democrat. It’s a very good idea, because it allows readers to see the two viewpoints. Perhaps this is part of the solution – not to allow whole sections of the media to be controlled by one individual, with their individual political opinions. One only has to look at Berlusconi media empire to see that such monopolies really do have a direct effect on democracy. The Murdoch influence is simply less visible, which makes it worse in my opinion.

So what’s this democracy thing anyway?

July 11, 2011

As Rupert Murdoch and his news empire prompt further analysis of the power of the media in a modern society, we learn that in his home country, Australia, over half of secondary school students do not know that they live in a democracy or what that means. Occasionally we also hear that young people from other countries regard democracy (and even liberty) as western cultural baggage that may have become outdated.

Democracy does not survive and prosper because it is inherently more desirable; it needs to be explained and nurtured in every new generation. It certainly cannot be taken for granted. At least events surrounding News International over the past week or two have still made for a compelling news story. We must ensure that we never reach a state where people wonder what all the fuss is about. We must ensure that democracy is understood and valued. We must see that it is part of the mission of the education system to sustain it.

The power of the printed word?

July 9, 2011

I remember accompanying my mother on day trips to Dublin in the 1960s when I was a young boy, and being puzzled by a large billboard poster that used to be displayed somewhere around Palmerstown, or maybe near Heuston railway station (or Kingsbridge station, as it then was). The poster shouted in very large print: ‘All human life is there’ – and then it had the words ‘News of the World’. I had no idea that the News of the World was a newspaper, and so the purpose of this advertisement was a complete mystery to me. I thought it was saying that the world’s news contained all human life – a rather general (if true) statement, and hardly one that needed a billboard poster to make its case.

Well of course, the News of the World of the poster was a newspaper (I need no longer say ‘is’), and as we now know it did indeed contain all human life, very much including the low life. And as anger and dismay at what at least some of its journalists did gives way to thoughts about the wider implications, people are asking whether the News International stable of papers has given too much political power and influence to Rupert Murdoch. This isn’t an entirely new question – in 1992 Murdoch’s Sun claimed that it was the one ‘wot won it’ for John Major’s Tories in Britain – but as the spectacle of newspaper power gets held up alongside its corruption, the question has taken on a new urgency. And there are fears that this worry about corruption could be even more relevant if the Murdoch newspapers can work together with the most influential broadcaster in these islands (BSkyB), under the same ownership.

However, whatever the regulators or politicians may do, it is unlikely that this kind of concentrated media power will be sustainable for much longer. The decline of newspapers worldwide continues to gather pace, as people shift and get their news from the internet and its various outlets, including Twitter. Traditional broadcasting models are also coming under pressure – and BSkyB is still quite a traditional model. As almost anyone can publish a news site, or can broadcast whatever they like, with extreme ease, the media scene is changing fast, and it is unlikely that a Rupert Murdoch will, irrespective of current events and their consequences, be able to wield this kind of influence in future. And that must be a good thing.

The news, for a price

July 3, 2010

From yesterday the English newspapers The Times and The Sunday Times have restricted full access to their news websites to paying subscribers – what is now known as putting up a ‘paywall’. In doing so they have departed from the industry’s currently normal practice of offering online news content free of charge. They are not the first to do this – I remember that the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post required payment for access to some news content from the late 1990s; but the Times is no doubt the most prominent paper to require payment, and this move represents a deliberate calculation by Rupert Murdoch that readers will accept the change and that newspaper proprietors will be able, as a result, to avoid major financial losses as readers migrate from hard copy to online versions. Some others are following suit, such as the New York Times (though in their case only frequent readers will be charged).

I can’t really claim to be a judge of all this, but I think he’s got it wrong. People who get newspapers in hard copy tend to have significant brand loyalty – i.e. they buy the Times (if that’s what they get) because they like what it offers and because they are confident about the news coverage. I don’t think the same applies to online users – they move about between media sites and get what they want often on the back of online searches. I very much doubt whether many of them would subscribe, because no matter how many follow Murdoch’s lead there will always be plenty of free content elsewhere. Therefore, I am not inclined to believe that the business model for online news coverage is subscription – I think it’s advertising, alongside payments for special services such as archive searches.

Of course, many newspapers have found the new online world difficult, and a few have gone out of business or moved to online versions only as the number of subscribers for printed copies diminished. Other publishers who have from the start focused solely on the internet have begun to make an impact (such as the Huffington Post). It will be interesting to observe how newspaper publishing changes in the digital age. But my own hunch is that it won’t follow the trend that Murdoch is suggesting would be best. I may of course be wrong.