James Murdoch, heir apparent of the mighty News International, blew open simmering hostilities between the old and new worlds of media on Friday.
It took a significance of timing and location - the 20th anniversary of his father’s audacious MacTaggart speech at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival - for people to sit up and take notice, otherwise the slide towards 'free' might have driven over him completely.
It was a swingeing attack, designed to be provocative. The erosion of his father’s corporate model is potentially so great that to halt the tide of it involved James Murdoch attempting to mount a perception turnaround of pretty much Evil Kneivil proportions. This vaulted ambition involved labeling the BBC, one of the most trusted brands in media worldwide, as ‘chillingly’ ambitious, and denouncing a much-loved public service and world class national institution as state sponsored journalism, all because the profit party at News International is ending.
The concept of public service is one that News International barely understands. Their fight for a monopoly domain over satellite broadcasting, for example, was pretty much a textbook example of the ethos of winner takes all. The clarion cry for fair play sounded pretty lame in that context, coming as it did from the lips of one of the standard-bearers of the ruthless competitive corporation.
No matter how thuggish the attack though, its content was feeble. In a hyper-connected society, public service is a sensemaker. In times of disturbance it’s a glue, it is public service that has the capability to underpin seismic shifts with common sense, giving them a meaningful foundation that people can buy into. News International doesn’t see its purpose as this, it only computes the profit motive, and in days like these that is an issue.
Nor does it get the fact that the emergent economy will be built on attention and ideas and in a hyperconnected world ideas that spread, win, something unlikely to be helped by a paywall. In ‘the good enough’
economy, ease and convenience triumphs, meaning making content hard to access doesn’t work there either. In both these contexts ‘paid’ becomes a barrier to, not a measure of, success.
Robert Peston pointed to a fatal flaw of the ‘paid’ model from would-be providers like News International, that the ‘high priests’ of opinion have failed us
and have been failing for some time.
With the evidence of ruling class failure apparent in practically every sector, is it any wonder then that peer care is coming across as a quicker and more benign alternative to the posturing of experts. There’s more trust emerging in local communities of interest than in the oligarchies of opinion, and when local and arguably more reliable opinion can come from grass roots without having to pay a premium for it, the adage of scarcity equals value no longer applies.
We’re at a crossroads currently. One choice is to open up the doors of information to as many as possible, to go with real-time open source information as the means of developing the learnings needed to find the creative avenues to economic renewal and the seeds of renaissance. Alternatively, we can fall into a dark age driven by an anachronistic profit imperative that continues to serve the needs of the few at the expense of the many.
The writing on the wall for James Murdoch is that the News International brand does seem to be out of step with where things are headed. Media has always been transient in value and 'all that’s fit to print' all too easily discarded. Rupert Murdoch famously once quipped that ‘nobody ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the great British public’. That held true for a transactional business model but it doesn’t hold good for a relationship one, and that’s the shift that digital brings.
Digital, social media and ‘free’ are not in favour because they're about tools and channels but because they're about behaviours and relationships. The BBC is largely speaking a trusted and accountable organization, whilst News International’s profit motive has never been seen as equaling the common good.
The answer to News International’s woes may lie more in a rethink about its positioning and what it stands for and less about its pricing model. The real challenge for News International it seems is to think about having a purpose that’s bigger than its product
The hyperconnectivity of the social web obliterates the saliency of the transactional model that Rupert Murdoch’s thinking was based upon when it comes to news and entertainment, but it is possible under a banner of purpose to connect people who want to be connected, to involve them in where the story is, to offer traction as the natural alternative to thrust, the unrelenting thrust of push media that’s been at the root of News International's gradual decline.
Online communication is enabling more literacy
and empowerment by choice, consumers are relishing this new found ability and the newly levelled playing field of the democratized web.
Brands now have to offer both compelling entertainment and a credible purpose, those are the table stakes. They must be able to arouse intellectual understanding and emotional commitment to their purpose over and above their product, and this is where News International comes up wanting.
News International has chosen to play the hostage-taker in its relationships with consumers in the past, social brands work instead by garnering permission and consent. The consumer as consenting adult looks for community and democracy as part of the social contract it makes with brands and submitting to corporate deference is a thing of the past. The social revolution asks for brands with blatant integrity, brands capable of being trusted, because they possess a purpose beyond product and can appeal to hearts and heads well before wallets.
That’s the brand challenge for News International. It’s also a strength of the BBC. It’s something that James Murdoch may well find very difficult to displace.