Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Has the Sun lost it?

Rupert Murdoch isn't the man he used to be. First he bought MySpace for $1/2 billion just as Facebook was taking off. Then he got the New York Post (the American equivalent of the Sun), to endorse John McCain, shortly after McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. Murdoch was clearly convinced that the Palin appointment was a game-changer...

Then News International announced in August that it made a $3.4bn loss. Then James Murdoch launched a vicious attack on the BBC - which prompted previously indifferent people to rally around the Beeb.

And yesterday we had the news that Rupert Murdoch instructed the Sun to say they were backing the Conservatives in the next general election.

No surprise there - the Sun has been hostile to Labour since Cameron became Tory leader in 2005. So this won't change many Sun readers minds.

But it will affect how Labour voters feel. Labour's problem at the moment is widespread apathy. The September Guardian ICM poll showed Labour certainty to vote at just 53% (compared to 68% for the Tories and 59% for the LibDems). The ICM for 23/24th Sept was a little better - our certainty was 59% (but the Tories certainty had climbed to 70%). Labour needs to get people to the polls, and this could galvanise our voters. One person said to me, if Murdoch is against you, you must be doing something right...

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?