Monday, August 31, 2009

Journalistic ethics (part 2)

My last blog began with a reference to Jeremy Paxman, who gave the annual MacTaggart Lecture in 2007.

This year's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival was given by James Murdoch. Nine years previously, in an Alternative MacTaggart Lecture on media globalisation James had argued that there will eventually be four major language groups - Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Hindi. In 2000 he had said: The last decade of media industry navel-gazing seems to me to have been dominated by two major themes. The first one is that the era of "Big Media" - consolidated, multi-national, multi-service corporate powerhouses - has ushered in a rash of exploitative, lowest common-denominator content that is destroying the cultures in which it is disseminated. The second is that the Internet has changed everything, resulting in new vs. old paranoiac fantasies about every traditional media firm suffering the same fate as Time Warner, that of being gobbled up.

Murdoch's views about the Internet have become a major concern in media circles. In Friday's lecture James went further, saying that Britain has outdated thinking when it comes to broadcasting and the media - we have, as he put it in a trite and well-worn phrase, analogue attitudes in a digital age. His speech was seen as a direct attack on the BBC and its dominant position in the UK, as well as on the media regulator Ofcom. The lecture was the headline item in BBC2's Newsnight programme that evening. It is fairly obvious that Murdoch sees the BBC as potentially thwarting News Corp's UK ambitions to charge for online content.

Murdoch's lecture ended with a rhetorical flourish: people value honest, fearless, and above all independent news coverage that challenges the consensus. There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.

The trouble with Murdoch's thesis is that it is totally false, as is comprehensively demonstrated by the abject failure of journalism in the United States to stand up to, and scrutinise, big business. Financially powerful corporate interests, for example drug companies and health insurers, by dint of influence on major media players and politicians, have effectively stifled debate on meaningful health care reform. And it's not as if the Murdochs aren't aware of this fact, as Fox is one of the biggest and most pliable outlets when it comes to corporate influence peddling.

This blog is primarily concerned with the failure of the BBC to keep to its own principles on diversity and inclusiveness in the Newsround children's daily news programme. On 28 October 2008 I mentioned last year's California Proposition 8 debate. I said: This is a golden opportunity to acquaint Newsround viewers with the debate, and it might go some way to make up for the dearth of coverage of LGBT issues on BBC children's TV. A few days later an American commentator who works for NBC, Keith Olbermann, delivered a striking and heartfelt polemic against the bigotry represented by Proposition 8:

How could a person expressing such noble views be nobbled by big business? The answer is the ownership of media companies by big corporations such as News Corp and General Electric. One of Olbermann's favoured bugbears was a Fox commentator called Bill O'Reilly and associated journalistic malpractice by the Fox news channel. O'Reilly was, by the way, one of the instigators of the kerfuffle (blog 25 June 2008) about the Heinz Deli Mayo advert in the UK.

Fox News and their O'Reilly fought back by attacking NBC's owners General Electric - over its supposed business involvements in Iran. Olbermann's withering criticism was obviously hurting them. The collateral damage became too much for GE, so Olbermann was effectively muzzled by a deal between Rupert Murdoch at Fox and GE, exposed later by Brian Stelter from the New York Times. What's the betting that Rupert himself was the instigator of O'Reilly's fight-back tactics? But that's a minor issue; what this shows is how a seasoned and otherwise principled commentator was nobbled in the free market USA.

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