Peston, Murdoch and Marr sounds like a firm of dodgy solicitors, but they are, of course, the names of important prognosticators of our media future.

  • Robert Peston, Business Editor for the BBC, delivered the Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival today (Saturday 29 August 2009), looking at the future of news journalism.
  • James Murdoch, son of Rupert and Chairman & Chief Executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia, attacked the BBC in a question and answer session following Peston’s lecture, pleading for deregulation in the industry and removal of the BBC’s ‘dominance’.
  • Andrew Marr, BBC journo and author of the excellent My Trade, makes some pertinent and prescient comments in defence of the BBC in his book (published in 2004).

Robert PestonPeston describes the current global recession in unromantic terms (several times) and explains the impact on news media in particular. His executive summary looks like this:

1. This is no ordinary recession – the traditional business model of traditional news providers is being wrecked and needs to be overhauled.

2. In a globalised, 24/7 digital world, individual news organisation may be less powerful than they were, but stories – and to an extent the journalists who own them – shout louder than ever.

3. The traditional distinctions between television journalists, radio journalists and print journalists are quite close to being obsolete. This has huge operational implications for all media companies and also for regulation of the industry.

4. The financial crisis we’re living through – and the end of an era of what I call financial paternalism – shows that more than ever we need a choice of high-quality news providers which are confident in their ability to explain complex important issues in a clear and accessible way. [Can we] be certain that the commercial news sector’s imminent revolution – in launching subscription or paid-for online news services – will meet that important need of any thriving democracy[?]

He then goes on to “raise the question of whether the BBC is the invaluable defender of impartial, public-service journalism, at a time of a massive squeeze on the resources of commercial news providers, or the monstrous squisher of private sector rivals.” But, as he developed his argument, he also recognised the pivotal role of journalists in reporting and making news. Referring to his own involvement in the Northern Rock saga and the subsequent earthquake in the banking world, he acknowledges that “the incident shows how loud a voice a journalist and a media organisation can have and what a heavy responsibility there is to get the facts and context right.” He then adds (rightly, in my view):

It was plainly in the public interest to disclose the weakness of our banks. And the primary justification – for me – of this kind of story is to democratise information that matters to all our livelihoods, which would otherwise be available simply to a few bankers, hedge funds and government officials. That said, no responsible journalist would fail to acknowledge that it would be wrong to weaken such important financial institutions through an exaggerated account of their vulnerability.

He then goes on to admit that “the media did too little to challenge the consensus that the world had entered an era of continuous low-inflation growth – or at least not until it was too late.” Recalling the need to challenge orthodoxies, he states: “But although individual news organisations are probably in general weaker, facing both greater financial pressures and more competition than ever, the power of individual stories – and I suppose of journalists, from time to time – has increased.”

I quote at length because Peston, addressing the changing and increasingly complex world of news communication, sees the tension between the need for “providers of high quality, authoritative news … enough competing groups with the resources to invest in news – because it is far from cheap to supply people with the information they need to take control of their lives and hold big institutions to account” and the dangers of losing quality (and accuracy?) in the heat of that same competition. In a damning indictment of the return to the status quo in the banking system, he says:

And what worries me is that we are trusting these unelected officials from regulators and the central banks – like the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England – to take these decisions on our behalf all over again, without any serious popular debate about what kind of banking system we want. Unless media organisations are prepared to tackle these unsexy complicated issues, how on earth are we going to foment a national debate, how are people going to have a voice on issues that probably affect their prosperity more than whether the tax rate rises or falls by a few percentage points.

James MurdochPeston then turns his attention to the demands of public service journalism, which he describes as “about informing and educating the public so that there is democratic participation in big decisions about the future of capitalism.” Whilst understanding the complaints of private sector operators like James Murdoch who are driving towards charging for online access, Peston puts his finger on why the BBC must be protected:

Will the new paid-for online model inform and educate on hard issues – financial matters, but also medicine, the environment, education and so on – that matter to us, or will it concentrate on the more sensationalist and titillating bangs for the buck? And even if paid-for online services do endeavour to fill the gap created by the death of financial paternalism, will millions on low incomes be excluded from access to this information? Should we be relaxed if ‘can’t pay’ means ‘can’t know’?

… having just lived through the greatest failure in history to distribute financial resources in an efficient and equitable way, we certainly shouldn’t assume that a commercial digital market in news will distribute information in a way that would support a healthy democracy. Walter Bagehot – as luck would have it the greatest ever writer on banking – defined democracy as government by discussion. But you can’t have a decent chinwag without having the facts. And the big question … is whether the incipient structure of our new digital news industry will promote or undermine the healthy discussion that is necessary for democracy to thrive.

bbc-logoJames Murdoch is not a happy man and wants the BBC to have its licence fee cut in order to reduce its dominanceover independent media providers. But, Murdoch is arguing with the first element of Peston’s ‘fairnesses’ (“ensuring a level playing field for players in a commercial market”) and ignoring what Peston calls “the fairness of the distribution of information and knowledge to all who need it, irrespective of their material circumstances. These are two different kinds of fairness.”

Look at Murdoch’s tabloid empire and the dogma, methodologies and output of his Fox News in the USA and you begin to realise why commercial arguments cannot be allowed to be the dominant ones in the current media debates. Content, truth, accuracy and a recognition of the democratic importance of honest media are quickly sacrificed on the altar of business empires run on amoral lines. And this is where Andrew Marr’s observations come in. Concluding a long descriptive argument about the history and nature of the BBC, he asks:

Andrew Marr - My TradeWould a Britain without the BBC have been bound together in the way we have been bound together? And if the BBC goes, won’t a whole way of feeling British vanish too?

This is not mere sentimentalism. The BBC is able to attend to more than winning commercial advantage by giving people what they want. The Corporation – particularly in its news coverage – is both driven and tormented by the need to inform and help people understand what is driving and influencing their lives. This exercise might never be popular, but it is essential to a mature or maturing democracy. God forbid that Murdoch’s bleatings should ever lead to us being fed by media channels such as the embarrassingly perverse Fox News.