The intensity may have reduced since James and Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks appeared before the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, but the crisis besetting News International is still burbling along in the background, bunted doggedly onwards from time-to-time by The Guardian and the BBC. As the embarrassing allegations continue to slide out, one gets a clear sense (as Kim has observed) that things will never by the same for the tabloid press again – in the UK, at least. The saga has been that rare civil society event that unites everyone from all walks of life in moral outrage (whether real or confected) – from Nick Griffin’s BNP and David Cameron’s Tories, through to Ed Miliband’s Labour, the Greens, and everyone in between, even including the Murdochs themselves!
There are a few key interlinking threads here that I think invite some serious discussion: the state of the Murdoch brand, the UK media context and finally the Australian media context.
The News International media brand, in the United Kingdom at least, has been positively smashed, perhaps irrevocably. When News of the World published its final edition, with all proceeds going to charity, it had trouble finding charities willing to accept its money. The details of recent formal and informal meetings between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer with members of the Murdoch family are now being pored over with genuine distrust and disdain in the public, rather than the indifference that is typical. James Murdoch, the youngest Murdoch scion (strangely relatively unknown in Australia), has had his character brutally tested and his reputation as an executive dragged through the mud by all the allegations of wrong-doing on his watch. Rupert Murdoch’s image has morphed instantly from the powerful media mogul to end all media moguls into a tottering 80 year-old man who you wouldn’t be overly surprised to find in your local nursing home. Corporate dynasties suddenly seem just a little “last century”, relics of a more feudal, slightly more despotic capitalist era. If I were a financial advisor or a stock market activist, I would have some serious concerns about the transparency of the dealings of the various family members perched around the top of the News hierarchy, and advising my clients accordingly.
In the UK, the phone-hacking scandal has emerged in an age where circulation is in decline and newspapers seem on the fast track to extinction in their current form. Prices are being forced down (The Sun is just 20p!) and so is quality. Travelling on the underground in London, it quickly becomes apparent that the majority of people who bother to read a newspaper read the Metro, a free rag churned out by Associated Newspapers, who own the right-wing Daily Mail. Dead paper is – let’s face it – nice on a lazy weekend, but in this age of portable, wireless technology, really quite dumb. Personally, I’ve just subscribed to the Guardian Kindle edition – and boy does it make massive sense: cheaper than the paper edition, more convenient (downloads automatically each morning, readable on a packed train), and so much more environmentally friendly to boot. Is this the future of news?
If indeed it is the future of news, from what I can gather (admittedly from several thousand miles away), it might take Australia more than a little time to catch up. Australian newspaper circulation is of course also in long-term decline. Evolution in the Australian publishing market is also restrained by its diabolical levels of concentration; Fairfax and News Limited dominate the scene to such an extent that their half-life as newspaper publishers in the traditional sense is probably going to exceed that of their UK counterparts. I am not getting the sense that the Daily Telegraph or the Herald Sun are suffering from any significant amount of backlash from the exploits of the News of the World (please correct me if I am wrong in the comments!).
Will this saga be the watershed for publishing and the media/political nexus in Australia that it seems it will prove likely to be in the UK?