October 18, 2010

Few causes could get the heads of the BBC, Channel 4, the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Guardian and Mirror to co-sign a letter to the government. What unites these disparate interests are a dislike of Rupert Murdoch and a disapprobation of “The Dirty Digger’s” plans to take full control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

BSkyB was founded in 1990, when Murdoch’s Sky (founded in 1989) was amalgamated with its only rival, British Satellite Broadcasting. The company lost money until 1992 but then secured exclusive rights to show sporting events. In 1998, it offered the UK’s first digital TV service, and gable ends began to sprout ugly round plastic dishes by the thousands, as more and more subscribers sat to interact angrily with the Sky Sports ref or gape at the Sky News talking heads. Constant innovation”€”Sky+, Freesat, mobile phones, broadband, HDTV”€”has resulted in BSkyB becoming the largest British broadcaster, with nearly ten million subscribers in the UK and Ireland. Its revenue in the year to June was £5.9 billion, compared to the BBC’s revenue of £4.26 billion.

More than a third of Britain’s newspaper circulation is of Murdoch-stable publications”€”the Times, Sunday Times, The Sun, and News of the World. The rival media owners argue that 100% control of BSkyB (where he retains a 39.1% share) will give Murdoch unfair commercial advantage by enabling him to bundle access to these papers”€™ websites with multimedia packages. And this doesn”€™t take into account his interests beyond Britain”€”Fox, 20th Century Fox, Dow Jones, and much else.

“There are innumerable ironies in Murdoch’s plutocratic progress, but perhaps the greatest is that this son of privilege whose journals have inveighed so often against privilege is so openly intent on privileging his own children.”

The prospect of further extending Murdoch’s already impressive influence is galling to other media operators, none of whom can match the breadth of his holdings. Most newspapers are in decline”€”as is the Times (presently losing a reported £240,000 per day)”€”but only the Times has such a deep-pocketed sugar daddy.

Meanwhile, the BBC is demoralized and downsizing, with senior executives quitting and not being replaced and the corporation likely to be compelled to sell or discontinue such lossmakers as the Asian Network (although it will be retaining Radio 3 and 6 Music). There is also growing public disgruntlement with the BBC, to the extent that the Beeb has issued a 964-page handbook to help staff handle complaints. This amusing document advises that correspondents who use expressions such as “€œidiots,”€ “€œuseless,”€ “€œSort yourselves out!”€ and “€œI will sue”€ are probably making a complaint.

Murdoch also has political enemies. American leftists dislike Murdoch because of Fox News’ and The Weekly Standard‘s conservative bias. British leftists recall clashes with printing unions in the 1980s when Murdoch laid off 6,000 striking workers. News International’s E1 headquarters briefly became “€œFortress Wapping”€ and Murdoch a Thatcherite pinup boy, a buccaneer capitalist in the Tiny Rowland mold. They also recall with a fastidious shiver The Sun‘s infamous “€œGOTCHA”€ 1982 headline about the General Belgrano’s sinking off the Falklands. Writing on his website on September 30th, John Pilger warned darkly that Britain is “€œapproaching its Berlusconi moment.”€


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