A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

In Home Affairs, The Media on September 1, 2009 at 9:10 pm

“The only perpetual guarantor of independence is profit”,

claimed James Murdoch magnificently, as if stating something profound and enlightening for British debate, unaware perhaps that to most in Britain he would instead sound like the lunatic fringe of the right-wing of the 80s, let alone the 21st century. But his contributions to the debate, ill-timed and unconvincing though they mostly were (a friend judged it succinctly as “a rant”), did bring to light and interesting quandry the media is now in.

The private media is in an uncomfortable position in general (the BBC too, though for rather different reasons, having been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending series of scandals recently), of having a model of business bringing in insufficient cash to satisfy the demands of a market where content is expected by the consumer to be free at the point of access. This is partly as a result of the recession, but partly because of more fundamental problems. One of the interesting factors in the way that technology has been changing the marketplace is that a commonly understood and agreed set of rules has not yet been developed, and is difficult to when it is changing so rapidly. To cease prattling like a politician for a moment, the media is thus faced with a problem: trying to reconcile what might be unrealistic assumptions on the part of the consumer with the bare necessary demands for a private business.

We see this already in the shape of the piracy debate. I do not for a minute sympathise with the desires of those whispering in the ear of Lord Mandelson (well, as the press would have us believe), which would in this blogger’s humble opinion merely be an attempt to overbalance the market in the favour of the business rather than the consumer, and not work in any case. But contrary to what seems like a fashionable line among net bloggers at the moment, I do not believe concerns over piracy are unwarranted — not so much from the perspective of big business, but small providers. As a student of music, I do believe I have an interest in this matter, as the only alternative to a model of intellectual property is an equally unpalatable one, State sponsorship of all creative arts. And as with the debate Murdoch was commenting upon, there is clearly a need not just for compromise, but for drawing together the disunited parts of the equation, convincing consumer and provider of a common ground.

This is not easy. The media, partly because of the recession, and partly because neither the “freemium” or advertising models have so far worked as well as expected, is facing a problem of funding for free internet-hosted news. The Sunday Times editorial said that the media has breathed a “collective sigh of relief” at Murdoch’s decision to start charging for internet-hosted content, and  that others will quickly move to the same position, but I suspect that the sigh has one notable exception: News International itself. The first to make such a decision will most likely be the first to be punished for it, and worst. Private providers to not normally act collectively, not surprising given the level of competition. I would be surprised if they chose to here.

It is therefore understandable that News International chooses to gnash its teeth at the BBC, for it is difficult to tell how well a charging service of internet content will work in competition with a free at the point of access model that the BBC offers. It would require private providers to convince the consumer that what they are offering represents a special alternative to the State media, worth true value for the extra money invested. And unlike something like Healthcare or Education, this might prove more tricky: firstly, internet hosted content would be far harder to secure from “piracy”; secondly, as many have pointed out, it appears far harder to convince people of the extra value that comes with splashing out on the net, than with more measurable products sold outside. It is far easier to see the advantages of going private to purchase extra drugs, for example, than paying a subscription to read the Times when you can glean your news from the BBC and the host of independent free alternative sources such as blogs.

There are doubtless many ways of structuring a fee-charging online content model, from “adverts/no adverts” (cf. Spotify) to a subscription with a minimum amount of free access to content, such as the Financial Times uses. But ultimately, though Murdoch was wrong in most respects, I see his point in one: the size of State provision does matter. Make the BBC too big, and too generous, and ultimately it can not just compete but defeat: and the private sector in journalism will need a bailout of its own. As there is already talk  in government of “top-slicing” of the licence fee, it is clear that this is not merely a hypothetical danger; in a time of recession, it is one that needs careful evaluation. The BBC needs to be about provision, and increasing choice, not squeezing the private sector. It may turn out to be better to slim down the BBC a little than make the mainstream media reliant upon the taxpayer as well.

To claim the only guarantor of independence to be profit is madness. But neither is public provision an acceptable guarantor of independence on its own. Not only the public but also the private sector in journalism in Britain need cherishing; if, in the case of the latter, grudgingly, reluctantly and distastefully so.

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  1. Well written blog, I agree with many points to it, and you’ve identified the problem well.

    I am interested in your aversion to state sponsorship of creative arts though, I think you’ll know my stance on this. However, I don’t think you’re correct in stating this is the only alternative – a fair compromise can be made between intellectual property rights and the state. I can certainly envision a reduction in the IPR without any significant reduction in profit for artists.

    Overall however, I feel that the time of paying for news and information is over with the advent of the internet, and thus the end of private providers.

  2. I certainly agree that you can *reduce* IPR by a certain amount of government funding and sponsorship, but I don’t think you can end IP issues unless you have full State sponsorship. I don’t really have an aversion to State sponsorship per se, what I have is an aversion to is weak IP rights and State sponsorship dominating. That may not have come across entirely as I intended in the article.

    Nor do I think IP rights are necessarily weakened by shortening the time span or setting a profit cap. In fact, I think this may well return IP rights back to the intended recipients: IE the artists themselves.

    This is a comment on the subject I made on the Social Liberal Forum website:

    “I’d perhaps be interested in a system where the length of time before a work enters public domain is 25 + however many years it takes for the work to rake in a certain amount of money, with a limit of 75 years, or something along those lines. This would allow people a lot of time to wait for their work to gain attention if necessary, but restrict the length of time to which private business can use copyright law to rake in large sums of money and restrict distribution.”

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