Does Rupert have the balls to kill the BBC licence fee?
Rupert Murdoch – Wimp?
For many years Rupert Murdoch has been content to tolerate the BBC licence fee, never permitting any of his newspapers to campaign against it. I cannot recall a single editorial in any of his papers unequivocally calling for an end to the licence fee, never mind any sustained campaign on this subject. Rupert’s reason is quite cynical. Sky’s UK pay-TV platform monopoly is intact only as long as the BBC stays out of the subscription business. He is quite happy to accept the incoherence of the licence fee as long as it keeps the BBC off his lawn. James Murdoch did not attack the licence fee in Edinburgh. Neither did his father before him.
I would argue the Murdoch position is no longer sustainable. The disaster facing Murdoch’s newspapers in Britain is about to get worse as we exit the recession without a recovery to bubble-era advertsing revenues for the papers. BSkyB is wobbly, too, and no longer a coherent business.
Ultimately, the Sky platform will probably have to be sold off to raise cash and the channels will have to fend for themselves. The shareholders have been abused for years; separating these businesses would be a pay day for them, as well as releasing some necessary competition in a monopolised pay-TV marketplace.
The newspapers are a more immediate problem. There is a fin de siecle feeling about Wapping as the old man fades and the obituary writers look for rosebud analogies. It looks like a cathedral to a dead religion. As for the future: I like James, too. But the odds of him keeping this leaking ship afloat after the old man pops his clogs are akin to those of Arthur Sulzberger’s emerging as a triumphant leader of the New York Times. (I like Arthur, too.)
I am not sure anyone has absorbed the scale of disaster in Wapping. The top monkeys there actually believe that the patient will get better. This is like checking your 80-year-old mother out of the hospital and expecting her to be fifty again. Putting the editor of the Sun in charge is surely a joke.
The Sunday Times made a million pounds profit a week when I was there. It now loses that much. The Times has never made money. Many advertisers have gone permanently to Craig’s list and ten thousand other alternatives. Readers are treating news as a commodity (and with increasing cynicism). They’re spending their time reading Facebook, not the Sun’s website. Now Rupert claims he can make us pay to read his struggling papers online. You read it here first (maybe). Murdoch’s plan to charge for web content is a fantasy, in the United States for one set of reasons, and in Britain for another. As long as the BBC and others are giving away commodity news, nobody is going to pay Rupert, just to read Matthew Parris.
Maybe the plan has a slight chance if the BBC can be persuaded to stop giving away what Rupert wants to charge for. But charging UK web users to read the Sun is impossible as long as the BBC extorts £3 billion a year from its captive fee-payers and gives away equivalent drivel for nothing.
What will it take to bring down the Ministry of Truth? Rupert could do it, if he set his editors to a sharp campaign. It only remains to point out the facts. The BBC is an enormous con which is providing services people do not want at a price they are forced to pay. It’s not independent. Or good value for money. Or honest. It is, in truth, a hideous, giant kraken, enveloping and smothering everything it touches.
It is also irredeemably 20th century. Nobody who has listened to Last FM or Spotify can imagine for a minute that we listen to Wogan, Ross or Evans for any reason than that the BBC monopolises the airwaves. The BBC monopolised medium wave then VHF TV and then UHF TV; they continue to monopolise FM; they have set up a dreadful incompatible-with-everything digital radio service that they also monopolise. And then they have the nerve to tell us we love them, and threaten to send us to prison if we do not pay.
Only their technical monopoly sustains what is now a wasteful, duplicative analogue media stream of pure drivel. Were the technical assets hogged by the BBC to be vacated, we could live in a digital media cloud and have whatever we wanted.
Murdoch can perform a final service to the media should he turn his editors against this monster and create the level playing field he always claimed he wanted. Although News Corp is doomed in any case.
Full disclosure: Rupert used to pay for my advice, but has not for many years. To this one can attribute the decline of his empire.