Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Murdoch plans for media pricing

It's been a couple of months since I last posted - mainly because I have been so busy in my off-line world, I haven't had time to watch the news let alone blog a response to it.

It's an odd sensation not watching or reading news. You very quickly get used to concentrating on real everyday issues, and you only hear about what is going on elsewhere as a sort of distant muffled echo when a news item is big enough that it gets mentioned in conversation by largely non-news following people. When I logged into the Guardian today, I was sort of disorientated by what they deemed to be important news - most of what was on there (murders, Libya etc) seemed pointless and irrelevant to my life (is it sacrilege to say this?).

Only two pieces of news actually got through to me over the summer - the whole upset about the Tory chap thinking the NHS was a "60 year mistake", and the news that Murdoch wanted to charge for access to his newspapers.

Of the two, the Murdoch news is actually the more significant (the NHS is the third rail of British politics, no-one except a suicidal politician would dare to touch it), so I thought I'd explore what it means for the Labour party.

Throughout the 109 years of it's existence, the Labour party has faced a right-wing news-media in Britain. The Daily Mail scuppered the 1923 Labour government, by printing a fabricated letter about imminent communist revolution. Throughout the 1980's and early 90's Labour faced a hostile press given to personal attacks when they couldn't attack on policy.

Despite this however, the three biggest landslide wins any political party has won since universal franchise have been by Labour (1945, 1997 and 2001). We know how Labour achieved the 1997 and 2001 wins - it was done by a two-prong strategy where Blair schmoozed the press while Alistair Campbell ran a relentless rapid rebuttal unit determined to close down negative stories.

But what about the 1945 landslide? Atlee certainly had no PR skills nor any friends in the press. And he faced his equivalent of Murdoch in the form of Lord Beaverbrook, who poured out relentless poison about Labour in the 1945 election campaign, and even managed to influence Churchill so far that he made his shameful "gestapo" speech during the campaign.

So why did this relentless right-wing campaign fail so spectacularly, handing defeat to Churchill just three months after D-day?

In my opinion it was because though the press was pouring out it's bile, a significant part of the electorate wasn't consuming it, for the simple reason that they were still abroad at war, posted in places such as Germany, Burma, North Africa, all over the place really. They weren't reading any of the rubbish the press were putting out, and therefore their choice of party was based on what they personally wanted from post-war Britain - they didn't want soldiers forgotten as they were after WW1, they didn't want unemployment as in the 1930's, they weren't impressed by Tory appeasement of Hitler leading up to the war, and they were fully aware of Churchill's deficiencies as a manager, as they witnessed one cock-up after another in the theatre of war (Churchill was running the war while Atlee ran the home-front). So Labour was swept to power.

How does the 1945 experience inform today's politics? Simple. If Murdoch puts his newspapers behind a pay-wall, we will have once again a significant part of the electorate not exposed to his poison. Except instead of circumstances of war insulating the public, Murdoch will himself be walling off the public from his thoughts.

When the New York Times experimented with it's pay-wall a couple of years ago, their readership fell by 90%. Those 10% who paid did cover the bills - so the experiment was profitable. But significantly the NYT abandoned the paywall because for them profit was not enough - they wanted to be influential as well.

Suppose Murdoch goes ahead with his pay-wall - and suppose for argument that all the other newspapers follow. Suppose even further that he succeeds in his campaign to get the BBC to axe their website. He is assuming that because people cannot get news for free (a dubious assumption as due to the nature of the net, there is always leakage), they will "have" to pay.

I don't think people will be rushing to pay at all, even if all news online was behind a paywall. What will happen instead is a whole bunch of people simply "give up" the news. It's not necessary to daily life after all, and indeed when detached from the emotive poison put out by the news media, life takes on a pleasant tenor. I didn't miss the news at all this summer, and I don't think I'll be consuming it in the same quantity in the future - it now just seems a collosal waste of time, especially if you are busy. A whole generation of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings have already come to this conclusion, and simply find out what is going on by spending 10 seconds scanning the headlines on their email portal (they don't even bother to click the links).

This is a huge deal for the Labour party. It means one of the biggest headwinds against us eliminates itself. It means that on-the-ground work by Labour members to inform the population (leaflets, canvassing etc) takes on new importance. It means that the influence of media barons over government diminishes (will anyone pay attention to what Murdoch wants if no-one is reading his output?). At a stroke emotive personal attacks on our leaders will lose their power (because no-one will be listening) and policy issues will gain importance (as they actually do affect daily life). Absurd situations where people fear crime even while they don't experience it will disappear if there is no media to fuel fear and people start to draw their conclusions from their own experiences. This probably sounds sacrilegious, but even the elimination of the BBC as a news provider would benefit Labour (as we would no longer be subject to the constant "not good enough" criticism we face no matter what we do, which leads voters to take us for granted and to discount our achievements).

I think this will be a watershed - a step-change in how politics is conducted, which will make the next thirty years very different to what we've known in the last thirty.

I only wish Murdoch was bringing in his pay-wall now, before the general election. I wonder how we could persuade him to go ahead sooner?


Quietzapple said...

I can see how Murdoch might bundle news with particular features like P3, or sport as he does with his TV I think.

Fewer newsprint sales and reduced advertising share will mean fewer correspondents, fewer real writers I fear.

While the current situation is skewed more than usual vs Labour, partly because the Tories and their friends are scared witless of a fourth consecutive loss, fewer newsmen would not be good news.

I have not noticed - so far as I have looked - that yahoo, Microsoft, Google - differentiate between advertsing and what is usually a fairly right wing slanted proto-news they show us all:

My own blog has suffered. Why does the loon Tory candidate for Watford want to bombard any Quietzapple traffic with his message?

What is most clearly needed is law to ensure that media libels are not only retracted and swinging compensation paid, but that retractions and apologies occupy at least the same prominent position in the organ concerned, and at least the same length and attractive approach to the reader/viewer/listener.

Tom Harris, Andrew Brown, Mrs Osborne et al might agree: the latter perhaps because it would have given her greater negotiating strength with the Sunday paper which libeled her, rather than because she would have wanted still further publcity.

But if all the references to Gordon & Andrew Brown's flat had been reversed, if the lie had been gelded as nearly in flagrante delicto as possible . . . even 6 months after the original lies . . . instead of being a hard to find news item online.

Liar, liar, pants on fire truly applies to most our opponents publish about Labour. And the worst is that the BBC and other live media copy what the Daily Telegraph and such scunners propagandise.

Without print editions they will be copying Guido more often.

Confrontation is the only way ahead, and a decent Labour site to confront the lies of the most serious liars is the way ahead without a change in the law in my view.

snowflake5 said...

Quietzapple - I'm not sure why it would be a problem if there were fewer correspondents, I'm afraid. They mostly write rubbish that's not applicable to people's daily lives, so no loss if they disappear.

I'm also not sure Guido is a problem in the way you describe. 99% of the population have never heard of him, and crucially he relies on his contacts in the mainstream newsworld for his information and money - if they shrink, he does too.

As for Google advertising - it's contextual, i.e. their bot identifies a keyword and then serves up ads (the advertiser picks the keyword they want their ads attached to, the whole thing is automated). If you don't like the ads served up, you can block it in your Adsense account using the "competitive ads filter".

Quietzapple said...


Guido and his ilk have greater influence than the old Daily Sketch, for example, ever did because opinion formers read him.

His money he claims comes from placing advertising online, and not on his own site from what I saw there. Clearly those who like what he does will give him that sort of wrk, wether as buyers or sellers of online ad space.

He has gone from bankruptcy to owning two houses and a half share in his company which is registered in the WIndies, it is said to make libel actions more difficult. He employs several people, it is a costly operation, and, unlike Iain Dale, he is not on radio/tv and unlikely to make a living that way.

As newspapers are more subject to pressure such as that recently on the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, and whomever there invented the kiddy fiddlers' grin libel which has almost been removed online and is not in their database any longer, I doubt the decline of newspapers will suit us well.

It would be a problem if there were fewer correspondents, the competition if the right's ascendancy continues will be driving those who tell the truth to the wall.

Guido is an insider, and there will always be gossips. Driving newsmen out as newspapers fold will elevate the gossips still further I fear. The BBC advertises its probity via how many foreign correspondents they have.

The commonest view I have read is that Murdoch's people will not be able to make pay per view work, though it is technically feasible, and so others need not follow, but I am not sure.

Roland Rat vs Topless Darts anyone? Or mixed nude snooker on the minority Guardian channel?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the most interesting outcome from Murdoch's speech is the general consensus that the BBC is long overdue for radical downsizing.Just surprising that this dinosaur been allowed to survive for so long.

Angry voter

DevonChap said...

Back, from the dead, I was beginning to worry. At least the factual errors are still here

"handing defeat to Churchill just three months after D-day". D-Day was 6 June 1944, VE Day was 8 May 1945 which is I think the occasion you were looking for.

Leaving that aside I'm not sure your argument holds water. Firstly the Murdoch press lined up behind New Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005. If they are so powerful would you have won such large victories?

Secondly the pay-wall only effects the internet. The paper copies will continue (perhaps on Kindle). They influenced people and the politics before the internet, they will continue even after a pay-wall. The FT is still influential even though it charges for on-line content.

Even if all UK papers go behind a pay-wall and the BBC website is stopped from producing news (being anti-competitive or some such) there will still be news providers out-there. Sky News will still pump out the Murdoch line. Online Reuters' website is free and will remain so as it is a loss leader for the financial content.

Even more worrying for you will be where people will go for news online if they can't get it from the newspapers. Obviously blogs are where I'd expect them to go. Presently the right wing blogs are better funded. ConservativeHome already has the main new stories and have said they will summarize content that is behind a pay-wall. Labour presently doesn't have anything to touch it.

Stop for a moment to ask why the Times, Sun and Mail are successful. People aren't made to read them, they choose to. The Sun might like to say it won it in 1992 but there is little evidence it actually changed peoples' minds.

Finally your idea that somehow people will go back to a pre-radio world where they get their news and views from canvassers is antediluvian. For a start Labour doesn't have many activists left to knock on those doors.

Harry Flashman said...

One thing Murdoch isn't is stupid so I doubt whatever scheme he has in mind will fail.

I think this is all a ruse to beat on the Beeb - the viewers of which have no choice but to pay.

Also I think there is no chance of this happening before the election.

snowflake5 said...

DevonChap, you are assuming that if people can't get the news free online, they will go somewhere else for it - you speak as a news junkie who goes from site to site and blog to blog to get your fix. You even visit my blog more than I do, LOL.

Most people arn't like that. If they have to pay, they just give up the news full stop. Lots of people don't have the time to trawl for alternative news either. If they can't find it within five minutes, they give up. Most people have busy lives.

When the New York Times put up their paywall, they expected, like you, that their influence would still continue because of the paper edition. But what happened was that columnists like Krugman, Maureen Dowd etc simply became invisible. The few people who did read the paper edition didn't bother to disseminate the views. The just read the paper and then binned it. These days viral spreading of news and influence happens on the net. Block yourself from the net, and you become invisible.

Quietzapple said...

I like the hopeful claim that the BBC is now the object of a universal desire for reform.

No-one wants to pay of course, but most people would be rather annoyed at any change which cut across their own tastes.

But then, I don't restrict my friendship group to thsoe online who imagine they are "libertarians" and look forward to the authorities easing the way for we snouts as I believe the term is, in our tattletaling.